Monday, November 30, 2009

slip past security more easily

Last week, two of these people did the seemingly impossible. They apparently walked into an exclusive party at the White House, without having been invited.

That's Tareq and Michaele Salahi, posing at the party with Vice President Biden. That same night, they also got just as close to President Obama.

I like to think that I've become more aware than the average white American of all things racially "white." And yet, it wasn't until I read some observations of these two gate-crashers by non-white writers that I even thought about the significance of the whiteness of the Salahis. Now it seems obvious -- if entering a White House event without being invited was a crime, then that crime was simply easier for the Salahis to commit because they're white.

American media outlets are now giving voice to a lot of concern about how this "security breach" could have possibly happened -- how could two people just waltz right into the White House and right up to the president like that? Again, here's one answer that I'm not hearing much at all: one way they did it was by wearing "white" skin.

At, a black writer named Rose Conley asks a series of interesting questions about the Salahi debacle. She then ties it to "Balloon Boy," another recent, publicity-seeking event/crime, involving a boy whose parents pretended he was trapped in a runaway balloon. Conley asks, "Some say only 'white people' would have the audacity to pull off either one of these stunts. Would you agree?"

I have no idea how to answer that question. Conley did get me thinking, though, about the whiteness of the Salahis. (Update: as some readers of this post note in the comments, the whiteness of Tareq Salahi, a Palestinian American, is complicated.)

"Oh," I suddenly thought. "Of course. Surely what the Salahis did was easier to do, just because they're white."

I think that because I too am white, it took me awhile to realize that. In fact, it took someone non-white to point out their whiteness for me to even realize that at all.

And then, a few Google-minutes later, I happened across Comedian Margaret Cho's brief blog entry on the Salahis, and on her own, non-white experience with White House security:

I am convinced those people got into that white house state dinner because they are white. I attended a state dinner during the Clinton administration and they did such a thorough background check before I was even allowed to RSVP that I was coming I thought they were going to ask me for a stool sample -- we are talking DEEP BACKGROUND -- and I am fucking famous. And I was fucking famous then. White people always look more INVITED than non white people.

Yes, white people look "more invited" to such an event. What a great way to put it.

By the way, for anyone who might somehow be unacquainted with the famous Margaret Cho, she's a Korean American. I think it's fair to say that that racial status, and the lifetime of race-related moments it causes, gives her more insight into how race works in America than most white Americans have.

At any rate, I also think that Cho must be right about this White House security breach. We may never know for certain, but surely the Salahis would have had more trouble slipping past security if they didn't looked the part of "invited White House guest." Looking that part means dressing and acting properly, of course, but it also means looking "white," no matter how many non-white people also visit the White House. No matter how black the current residents of the White House themselves are.

Simply put, it seems self-evident that security personnel often perceive non-white skin as a security threat, and that they probably never perceive white skin that way.

It's also worth pointing out that ordinary white people perceive differently colored skin that way too, and furthermore, that they often respond by functioning as de facto security personnel. For any doubters of the presence, and the destructive power, of the incredible disparities between common white surveillance of white versus non-white criminality, here's some convincing evidence.

The following two videos, from ABC's program "20/20," take about thirteen minutes to watch, but they're well worth it. This "20/20" segment demonstrate so much about the unconscious associations deeply embedded within most white Americans, associations and messages about the supposed threat of black skin, and the supposed non-threat of white skin.

Here's the basic set-up: in a suburban New Jersey park, three young white male actors openly vandalize a car. Few white people passing by bother to intervene, and only one of them calls the police. Later, three black male actors do the same thing -- you can probably imagine how different the response is from the white users of this park. Even black teenagers merely sleeping in a car provoke more 911 calls than the three white teenagers beating the crap out of someone else's car.

Watching this contrast, and thinking about what it says about common American perceptions of a "criminal" profile, should be instructive for most white people. On the other hand, I don't imagine it reveals much of anything new at all for most black people.

As a person who's classified as "white" in America, I sometimes forget how much easier that makes my life. For one thing, I never have to worry that my race alone marks me as a potential criminal; that makes moving throughout my daily life a lot less stressful, and a lot less dangerous.

I also sometimes forget, as I did with the gate-crashing Salahis, that being white can make it much easier for white criminals to commit their crimes. Not only do white people overestimate the criminal threat from black and other non-white people; they also underestimate, to their potential detriment, injury, and even death, the criminal threat from white people.

h/t: Jessie Daniels @ Racism Review

Saturday, November 28, 2009

consume racially themed entertainment that makes them feel good (instead of challenged)

If you're thinking about holiday gifts these days, and if you ever give books, here's a popular, race-related novel that I recommend against buying -- Kathryn Stockett's The Help. This fictional depiction of Deep-South interracial harmony was one of this year’s bestsellers; it's currently’s seventh bestselling book, with a five-star rating generated by almost 1200 customer reviews.

If you want to give a white reader a book that has anything to do with race, why not instead support non-white writers? Author Carleen Brice’s blog is a great place to look for ideas: White Readers Meet Black Authors. If you have other suggestions, please let us know in a comment.

When a white friend suggested that we read The Help together, I hesitated, like I always do with a new "bestseller." Like Hollywood movies, bestselling fiction almost always sells well by playing up to stereotypes and preconceptions commonly held by middle-class white people; if a novel deeply challenges such notions instead, it almost never makes the bestseller lists. Since I had some free time this week, I decided to see why this white author’s book about black maids in the early-1960s has been pleasing so many readers. I was entertained at times by The Help, and I’m grateful to my friend for suggesting it, but as I said, I can’t recommend it.

The Help is told from the point of view, and in the voices of, three different women living in Jackson, Mississippi. Two of them, Aibileen and Minny, are veteran maids working for relatively wealthy white housewives, while Skeeter is a young white woman on the cusp of becoming such a housewife. Skeeter has other ambitions, though, writerly ones; she draws the two maids into a secret scheme of producing a racially explosive book, consisting of Skeeter’s interviews with black maids who describe and expose the abject conditions of their servitude.

Among the book's many problems, I continually balked at Stockett's efforts with what amounts to literary blackface. Writing in alternating first-person sections, Stockett renders the voices of Aibileen and Minny with mostly complete, mostly grammatical sentences; they’re also tinged with just enough Ebonics-like touches to make them sound "black." I don't know what black maids talked like in the early 1960s, but I’ve read both white Southern readers and black readers of this novel online, and some say that the voices of Aibileen and Minny are accurate, while others say they’re inaccurate. At any rate, I found all the non-standard verbs, and the “a’s” instead of “of’s,” and so on, annoying, especially because Stockett apparently made no attempt to similarly mark the narrative voice of her one white protagonist.

Since Stockett attempted racial and regional ventriloquism with her black narrators, I continually wondered why she didn't do so with her white one, Skeeter. As a product of her time and place, the speech and internal dialogue of a person like Skeeter would likely have some regional features. However, nothing that I could detect in Skeeter’s narration varies much at all from standard American English.

Actually, in this and other ways, Skeeter struck me as anachronistic, a white Southern women more of our time than her own. Maybe that’s why so many white women like this novel -- because they can easily identify with this deregionalized white character? Aside from her relatively standardized English, Skeeter’s thoughts and actions seem too thoroughly uninfected by her white supremacist surroundings. She’s too willing to cross racial lines, and too disgusted with those whites who are infected by white supremacy. In overly stark contrast to most of the other white women around her, she treats "the help" just like she would any other (white) people -- even better, actually. There is one other white woman in the novel who seems similarly at ease with crossing and/or ignoring racial lines. Celia is the child-less, layabout white woman who’s recently hired Minny, and Minny repeatedly feels taken aback by the way this white woman, who has “white trash” roots, treats her like another white woman, instead of a black one.

I found the nearly total abandonment of common white customs and habits by both of these white women in their interactions with black people, during the Jim Crow era in the deep South no less, implausible. As a writer, Skeeter is a stand-in of sorts for Kathryn Stockett, who was also once an aspiring writer living in Jackson, Mississippi. I find it telling that when an interviewer asked Stockett if Skeeter is an autobiographical character, she replied, "Absolutely not. I was never that brave. Frankly, I didn't even question the situation down there. It was just life, and I figured that's how the whole world lived. It wasn't until I was about 30 years old that I started looking back on it."

Exactly. And that’s exactly what’s wrong with the thoroughly non-racist Skeeter. I’m not surprised that it took moving away from Mississippi, in terms of both distance and time, for Kathryn Stockett to “question the situation down there,” and I’m certainly glad she’s now “questioning” it. Racist thought and behavior on the part of whites during the Jim Crow era was just the norm back then, so seeing the evil in that, let alone thoroughly resisting it, would likely be very difficult while living in the thick of it, and while enjoying the privileges of membership in the white club.

And so, again, it seems implausible that someone like Skeeter, having been born and raised at that time in Mississippi, would be so completely outside of that norm, so different from other white people. And again, it does seem plausible that Stockett (and perhaps her editors) portrayed her that way so that white readers can more readily see themselves in Skeeter. In this sense, and others, this novel is thoroughly white-framed entertainment, designed to appease, rather than challenge, the ostensibly liberal sentiments of white consumers.

Unfortunately, then, while The Help is about people who risk their lives to challenge the status quo of their day, the book itself does very little to challenge the status quo of its own day. A particular norm of today that The Help fails to challenge, and instead reinforces, is the tendency of white consumers to favor racially themed entertainment that makes them feel good about the victims of white supremacy, and about the few good white people who resisted it. Ultimately, such entertainment -- from Driving Miss Daisy and The Shawkshank Redemption to Gran Torino and The Blind Side, and many, many more -- also makes white audience members feel good about themselves, which they do when they distinguish themselves from the bad, racist white characters, and when they feel good about the connections that they imagine they’re making with the noble, forgiving, goodhearted characters of color.

Over a decade ago, Benjamin DeMott spelled out the problems with a long parade of such media-generated friendships in his book, The Trouble with Friendship: Why Americans Can’t Think Straight about Race. DeMott demonstrated that this seemingly white liberal impulse -- to reach across racial lines toward the common humanity in all races of people – springs from fundamentally conservative sources. When white people see black people as “just like us,” they overlook the institutional and systemic barriers that hinder black lives, leading them to embrace those black people who seem pretty much like friendly white people underneath it all, and to blame those black people who don't seem that way, because they "insist on" living in bad conditions, which they supposedly bring on themselves by failing to pull themselves up by their proverbial (but basically nonexistent) bootstraps.

Such cultural products usually have a character at the center that white readers can identify with, a goodhearted white character. Black people in particular are portrayed in such entertainment as also goodhearted, suffering (but strong), noble, and most important of all, forgiving. These qualities are drawn out of The Help's black characters by a white woman, Skeeter, as she gets to know them through the interview process for her book, which is called, more simply, Help. And although (spoiler alert!) Skeeter publishes the book anonymously, and shares the royalties with her black co-authors, it is her book, since its publication helps her flee Mississippi. Skeeter heads for New York City and leaves Aibileen, Minny and the other maids behind, to continue sorting through the threatening disturbances caused by the publication and popularity of Help.

This novel is only about the black women who are “the help” on its surface. Despite the three-dimensionality of Aibileen and Minny, the real stories are those of the white women -- the cartoonishly evil ones who abuse the help (and their own children, mostly through neglect), and the implausibly innocent ones who humanize the help. In the case of Skeeter, even a good white character ultimately ends up using the help, for her own purposes and advancement, by publishing a self-serving book about them. Not unlike, it seems, Stockett herself.

I made it all the way through The Help, and I was even entertained along the way. I also found the characters and story believable much of the time, despite the mostly cartoonish cast of characters. Nevertheless, I also realized as I read that for all of that to happen -- for the story to work well for me, as an engaging story that I could ride along with and fall into -- I had to suspend my awareness of just how this book's racial dynamics work for most white readers.

Those readers have basically been trained to enjoy cozy, fantasy-driven entertainment about interracial harmony. This training has included a long procession of previous feel-good tales about friendship between goodhearted white folks and forgiving black folks (a tradition that stretches at least as far back as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), and also by a white-framed culture in general, which discourages us from seeing that racism remains a problem that is much deeper and more enduring than any personal friendship could ever be.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

ignore the ugly lies and brutality buried beneath the fantasy of "thanksgiving"

39th National Native American Day Of Mourning
Nov. 27, 2008, Thanksgiving (or thanks-"taking") Day

For the past four decades, United American Indians of New England have staged an alternative to America's shameless, self-aggrandizing fantasy of a holiday, "Thanksgiving." The members of UAINE call their rejection of this fantasy the National Day of Mourning. The events -- including a march, speeches, and other forms of gathering and protest -- will take place this year on November 26 (tomorrow), in Plymouth, Massachusetts, which was the supposed site of the "pilgrim" landing.

As the organizers explain on the UAINE site,

An annual tradition since 1970, Day of Mourning is a solemn, spiritual and highly political day. Many of us fast from sundown the day before through the afternoon of that day (and have a social after Day of Mourning so that participants in DOM can break their fasts). We are mourning our ancestors and the genocide of our peoples and the theft of our lands. NDOM is a day when we mourn, but we also feel our strength in political action. Over the years, participants in Day of Mourning have buried Plymouth Rock a number of times, boarded the Mayflower replica, and placed ku klux klan sheets on the statue of William Bradford, etc.

Regarding the American "Thanksgiving" myth, the United American Indians of New England also point out the following:

Here is the truth: The reason they talk about the pilgrims and not an earlier English-speaking colony, Jamestown, is that in Jamestown the circumstances were way too ugly to hold up as an effective national myth. For example, the white settlers in Jamestown turned to cannibalism to survive. Not a very nice story to tell the kids in school. The pilgrims did not find an empty land any more than Columbus "discovered" anything. Every inch of this land is Indian land.

The pilgrims (who did not even call themselves pilgrims) did not come here seeking religious freedom; they already had that in Holland. They came here as part of a commercial venture. They introduced sexism, racism, anti-lesbian and gay bigotry, jails, and the class system to these shores. One of the very first things they did when they arrived on Cape Cod -- before they even made it to Plymouth -- was to rob Wampanoag graves at Corn Hill and steal as much of the Indians' winter provisions as they were able to carry.

They were no better than any other group of Europeans when it came to their treatment of the Indigenous peoples here. And no, they did not even land at that sacred shrine down the hill called Plymouth Rock, a monument to racism and oppression which we are proud to say we buried in 1995.

The first official "Day of Thanksgiving" was proclaimed in 1637 by Governor Winthrop. He did so to celebrate the safe return of men from Massachusetts who had gone to Mystic, Connecticut to participate in the massacre of over 700 Pequot women, children, and men.

About the only true thing in the whole mythology is that these pitiful European strangers would not have survived their first several years in "New England" were it not for the aid of Wampanoag people. What Native people got in return for this help was genocide, theft of our lands, and never-ending repression.

But back in 1970, the organizers of [a] fancy state dinner told Wamsutta he could not speak that truth. They would let him speak only if he agreed to deliver a speech that they would provide. Wamsutta refused to have words put into his mouth. Instead of speaking at the dinner, he and many hundreds of other Native people and our supporters from throughout the Americas gathered in Plymouth and observed the first National Day of Mourning. United American Indians of New England have returned to Plymouth every year since to demonstrate against the Pilgrim mythology.

On that first Day of Mourning back in 1970, Plymouth Rock was buried not once, but twice. The Mayflower was boarded and the Union Jack was torn from the mast and replaced with the flag that had flown over liberated Alcatraz Island. The roots of National Day of Mourning have always been firmly embedded in the soil of militant protest.

The United American Indians of New England welcome non-Native supporters to stand with them tomorrow during their National Day of Mourning. For further information see their website,

Here's some raw footage of last year's event:

If you live in the United States, do you have any plans for tomorrow that differ from the normal white American modes of giving thanks?

As for me, if I lived anywhere near Plymouth, I would join the events described above. Since I don't, my plans for tomorrow differ little from what I wrote about what I did on that day last year:

I watched a DVD that I'd found a few days earlier at my local library. Along with those who were willing to watch it with me, I learned about the histories of the Native Americans who used to live where I do now, before people of my race sent the few remaining ones out to western "reservations."

I also took my dog for a long walk, and tried to imagine what this area and its people were like back then, before my people stole it. I struggled with how I should feel about that, and what I could do about it.

Along the way, I told a friend who greeted me with "Happy Thanksgiving!" that that was a terrible thing to say, and that I wasn't feeling "thankful" for the results of the genocidal past that landed me here. That literally "landed" me here.

Later, during the annual Big Dinner, I insisted on an awkward moment of mourning and reverence for the absent peoples, the original inhabitants, who taught my ancestors how to raise and prepare several types of the food we were about to eat, and some of whose remains might be right here, underneath us.

Monday, November 23, 2009

assume that nigeria is a threatening, hopeless morass of corruption

This is a guest post for swpd by Craig Brimm. The Creative Director and founder of Culture Advertising Design in Atlanta, Georgia, Craig's work over the past 15 years has included television, video, and radio advertising. Craig currently posts at Kiss My Black Ads, an advertising and marketing blog that focuses on the creative and cultural influence of African Americans and other cultural forces on global marketing.

I smell race baiting. This ad for an identity protection service is a perfect example of how racism today is subtly and not so subtly propagated.

Advertisements can play on your fears in the worst way to promote products. We see this behavior with products as varied as insurance to home monitoring systems and political campaigns. How are such ads all that different from the fear-mongering and racist Willy Horton commercials of George Bush/President #42's campaign?

This spot opens with an unsuspecting woman sitting on her lovely couch in her plush home thinking, no doubt: “I think I'll buy some sweat-shop shoes that were made in some lesser developed nation, where the prices are low and the children don't mind the hard labor. Because at the end of the week, that chattel slavery will amount to about 35 cents and that will keep shoe prices manageable the world over. Besides, those shoes are cute!”

I'm just joking here. But it’s not far from the truth of almost all American shoe-buying experiences. The visual short-hand of corporatized commercialism is a well-established language that all Americans both understand and speak fluently. This pre-programming is leveraged here to make the advertisement work.

The shoe-buying woman here is meant to evoke nothing but pleasant and calming thoughts. Alas, the sweet woman buying these shoes feels complicit in no crime. She couldn't be, nor would you ever consider her to be. As a conventionally pretty, white, upper-middle-class American woman snuggled up in her cozy home, she's a perfect, stereotyped picture: purity, cleanliness, wholesomeness, and safety.

Now, note the contrast of those shifty black Nigerians (as they are initially portrayed in this commercial). As vaguely African drums and wailing voices begin building gathering toward an inevitable crescendo, the slight but menacing grins and scowls of the black Lagosians suggest that they are unworthy of our trust -- or so this advertiser portends.

This spot relies completely on a belief system that dark-skinned Africans are evil, or at least, most likely up to no good. Not only is the ad grounded in a reliance on a global error of race, you are actually led, through camera work, make-up, lighting and set design, to feel that these people, combined with any other prejudices and misconceptions you may have, are just not to be trusted. By the time the commercial gets you to the elder gentleman's seemingly malevolent grimace, you've probably become convinced that the con is in. The “dark” men, and even one of their boys, have done just what you would imagine them to do.

Now, the producers of this mockery may feel that they turn the tables by the end of the spot, by showing you that it was all your imagination. "See," the ad finally implies, "they are good, legitimate business people. It was YOU who was imagining otherwise."

Nevertheless, by that point the damage has been done. Through the language of movie-making, stereotyping, and deceptive imagery, with the additional fuel of a few Nigerian-postmarked emails that you've probably received, the makers of this ad have succeeded in propagating racist tenets, and further cementing in your heart and mind that there is something wrong with these people.

Even if you go along with the spot and accept the premise that this was just an ad that shows, “I'm protected even when there is no real danger,” you have been given an impression, and more importantly an indelible emotion, that will stick with you. The ad reinforces, rather than counteracts, that initial creepiness you felt when you saw that the woman's credit card transaction went to a black man. Worse still, that it went to a black African... in Nigeria.

That is a horrible feeling -- a racist feeling.

In terms of racism, and of colonialist perceptions of a hopeless, ever-threatening "Africa," this ad really does the opposite of what it claims to do. It further tips the scales of an already unbalanced set of beliefs and systems of justice, away from truth and forward-facing progress.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

get inside the heads of non-white people

The recent change in retired ballplayer Sammy Sosa's appearance raises a question most famously asked of Michael Jackson -- did he or didn't he?

Did they, that is, intentionally lighten their skin? And then, if either one did, was it an effort to look more "white," more European? Or just to look "better"?

Regarding Michael Jackson, I'm in the camp that believes his skin grew progressively lighter not because he wanted it to, but instead because he had Vitiligo. But then, what about certain forms of plastic surgery he had? Were his narrowed lips and disappearing nose an effort to become merely more attractive? Or were they efforts to become more attractive by the racist measure of white/European standards?

As for Sosa, he apparently says that his lightened skin is a result of a cream he purchased in Europe "in a bid to soften his sun-damaged skin." But then, according to msnbc, the product itself is indeed a "skin lightening product," and Sosa is currently thinking about swelling his bank accounts by endorsing the product.

And then there 's those green contacts that Sosa seems to be wearing in the after photo [?]. . . Is Sammy Sosa whitening himself? If he's instead trying just to "look better," is he necessarily exhibiting symptoms of the pernicious mental and emotional condition known as Internalized Racism?

Among the most sad and even horrific symptoms of this deep-set disorder are the many ways in which non-white people alter their appearances in order to look more "white." I think another common sign of internalized racism, and of de facto white supremacy more generally, is the claim that such people are not doing so to look more white; they're instead said to be "deracializing" themselves.

That's a term used repeatedly in the following British TV show on cosmetic surgery and lightening skin creams -- "deracialization." Of course, while many non-white people who want to look better choose ways that de-emphasize their racial features, they also choose new features that match up with those of Europeans.

In this respect, when non-white people alter their appearance in order to "look better," rather than to consciously look more like people of European descent, their efforts are often, nevertheless, a response to white hegemony. By "hegemony," I mean the power of white people to mask their political, economic, and cultural dominance as something else -- something normal, ordinary, and seemingly natural. As ethnic studies scholar George Lipsitz wrote over a decade ago, “as the unmarked category against which difference is constructed, whiteness never has to speak its name, never has to acknowledge its role as an organizing principle in social and cultural relations.”

The following episode of Channel 4's fascinating television series, "Race: Science's Last Taboo," focuses on facial features, and the efforts of three non-white individuals in England to drastically alter their own faces. BEWARE, though, if you decide to watch it; I found this program fascinating, instructive, and ultimately heartbreaking, but it contains very graphic flashes of plastic surgery (as well as a brief glimpse of a supposedly inadequate penis).

I think while this program may be sensationalistic in some ways, it's graphic elements make it a true and pointed horror movie. Its point, for me, is an instructive reminder of the ongoing, pervasive, and insidious power of white supremacy, and how incredibly brutal it can be to the identities and bodies of non-white people.

This program also makes me wonder (as I briefly explain below) -- how long will this insidious cultural abuse go on? Cosmetic surgery and other methods of "enhancement" are becoming far cheaper and more available; but, will the decline of the West, in numerical, financial, and other terms, eventually inspire fewer non-white people to resort to such methods in other to "deracialize" themselves?

As I said above, I wonder if the decline of the West, and of the U.S. especially, will result in fewer people seeking to "beautify" themselves in these drastic, self-mutilating ways. Actually, I expect that it will; I just don't know how soon that will happen.

In a recent interview, Martin Jacques discussed his book, When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order. I'm suspicious of this white British author's claims to in-depth knowledge about "the Chinese" and how they "operate," but he does inspire thought about how the growing dominance of China is going to play out, not just in economic and geopolitical terms, but also in cultural ones:

MARTIN JACQUES: [By] 2050, the Chinese economy will be twice the size of that of the American economy. This represents -- of course, it’s quite a long and protracted process, but it will fundamentally shift the economic center of gravity in the world, and will have also profound political and cultural implications.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about those implications.

MARTIN JACQUES: Well, there’s been a funny old assumption in the West somehow that China’s rise is just an economic story. If you go to the bookstores and look at what’s been written about the rise of China, it’s almost solely economic, in a contemporary sense. But this is obviously ridiculous, because the rise of a new global power always ushers in the expression of a much more comprehensive political, cultural, intellectual, military, moral influence, and this will in time happen with China.

And that’s why I argue the end of the Western world -- not that the West is going to meet its maker and, you know, there’s going to be the demise of the West. On the contrary, I mean, America will get richer, as other Western countries will get richer. But it will no longer shape the world, as it has in the last sixty years, or the West, in general. For 200 years, we’ve lived in a Western-shaped world. That era is progressively going to come to an end, as China becomes more and more influential. And you can see this already happening in certain parts of the world, much more than in the West. I mean, East Asia is already being increasingly shaped by Chinese influence of many different kinds.

Does this profound change, or shift -- which, as Jacques goes on to claim, is already happening -- mean that fewer and fewer non-white people will seek what amount to whitened features? Might we even get to the point where the opposite happens, with a lot of white people longing for, and paying for, non-white features?

Of course, the latter is already happening, in some ways. White people have long intentionally darkened or "tanned" their skin, for instance. And as I understand it, increasing numbers of white women are paying for bigger booties -- excuse me, make that "buttock augmentation." According to a plastic-surgeon-finder site, "Regardless of the origin of this growing trend, it appears that the butt is rapidly replacing breasts as the new point of emphasis, the new 'new thing.'”

What do you think? Where is all this racialized "self-enhancement" going?

Friday, November 20, 2009

assume that other white people enjoy making fun of and trash-talking non-white people

This is a guest post for swpd by Victoria, who describes herself as "a south Florida native, a senior majoring in English Education planning to teach in public schools, and a mother of 2."

I used to work in finance/mortgage, and I often heard my white coworkers making jokes about people's credit reports. They assumed the people serving as the butt of their jokes were black . . . unless, of course, their last name indicated the possibility of being Latino. I've also heard random white people tell me they're "not racist -- BUT," only to follow that up with a comment that's definitely racist.

I've noticed in these situations that they expect me to give them the old wink and nod -- "I hear ya, buddy" -- tacitly indicating that we're a part of the same special whiteness clique.

Up until recently (that is, until I put a stop to it), I received regular emails with pictures of POC behaving in stereotypical, supposedly humorous ways, or sometimes the opposite of stereotypical ways, with remarks attached to make sure that everyone knew that a stereotype was NOT being fulfilled here. Again, a kind of white solidarity was always being assumed, as if I would automatically agree with the racism that actually IS there, just because I'm white.

This sort of behavior seems fairly common among white people I have known. I always feel like they're insinuating that I'm like them, that my thoughts and feelings about non-white people are just like theirs. I grew up with white people constantly (I really do mean constantly) noting my differences from them, especially my abundance of non-white friends, which they clearly considered some sort of a rejection of my whiteness. But now it's assumed, by white adults who don't know me well, that I'm like them based on racial appearances. That couldn't be further from the truth.

Oh, white people who tell racist jokes and talk behind the backs of POC, please allow me to spare us both the disappointment!

I, and some other white people, do not think your jokes about POC are funny -- at all. Most of the time we're horrified. Contrary to what you believe, we don't all secretly think POC actually fall into the stereotypes that you think they do. We do not necessarily share some collective consciousness together bound by our whiteness. True, we are all lumped together in the white category, but that doesn't mean that we're all as blissfully oblivious as you are about it.

When you send us those emails, some of us are surprised and sorry to find out that you think that way. We want to tell you how ignorant what you've said is, and many times we do tell you. But deep down we know that it means the end of our friendship no matter what we do. Either you'll hate us for telling you that what you've just said, or forwarded, or laughed along with is racist, or we will simply be unable to bear the knowledge that your bigotry runs that deep.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

mistake greeks for arabs, arabs for muslims, and muslims for terrorists

This is a guest post for swpd by Jillian C. York, who began her writing career after living in Morocco and publishing her first book, Culture Smart! Morocco: A Guide To Customs and Culture (Random House, 2006), shortly thereafter. Jillian describes herself as "a writer, activist, Internet censorship combatant, and blogger currently based in Boston. I work at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society on the OpenNet Initiative and Herdict, and blog all over the place, including for the Huffington Post. My personal blog resides here, and I tweet here." 

Last week, a few days after the horrific events of Fort Hood, a Marine reservist in Florida mistook a visiting Greek Orthodox priest for a "terrorist" and beat him with a tire iron.  The reservist (who was indeed white) made all sorts of wild claims -- that the priest yelled "Allahu Akbar," that he made a lewd hand gesture. . . claims that have been widely refuted.

What really happened is this: The Greek priest, Father Alexios Marakis, was visiting Florida for the purpose of blessing another priest.  He got lost while driving, and pulled over to ask for help.  He was dressed in a robe and did not speak English very well, so the Marine, Jasen Bruce (who is sticking to his story and refuses to apologize) got freaked out and beat the crap out of him.

Because he looked like a terrorist. 
Which really means he looked Muslim. 
Which really means he looked "Arab." 
Which really means he looked different, and that scares white people.

I don't know exactly what it is about white Americans. . . I can say, from anecdotal personal experience, that Europeans and other white people traveling throughout the Middle East and North Africa often make silly orientalist comments, and I'm fully aware of the idiotic British BNP (and other European right-wing parties) that would happily rid Europe of all Muslims. However, there seems to be a special kind of ignorance amongst white Americans when it comes to Muslims and Arabs.  It goes something like this:

1. They don't know the difference between "Muslim" and "Arab."  Remember last year during one of McCain's town hall meetings when a middle-aged white woman objected to Obama by saying, "but he's-he's-an ARAB!"?  It was obvious to many of us that what she really meant to object to was his religion -- after all, it was part of the zany right-wing public debate at the time -- but instead she just somehow got confused and cried "Arab."  You know, because it doesn't really matter right?  Which brings us to McCain's response . . . "No, he's not, ma'am, he's a DECENT family man." As if being an "Arab" disqualifies a man from being a decent family man.  Which leads to:

2.  They think "Muslim" and "good person" are mutually exclusive. McCain was quite aware that the woman meant to say "Muslim" and yet chose to defend Obama not just by saying "No, ma'am he's not," but also by feeling compelled to add "he's a decent family man."  The implication?  That one cannot be both an Arab (or Muslim, since that's what we all know the woman meant) and a good man. I often hear comments about how obesity is the last acceptable prejudice in this country, but I'd like to argue that Islamophobia is far more widespread and accepted. Can you imagine if white people blatantly still said such horrible things about Black people? It's completely unheard of in many parts of the United States for someone to say "nigger," but "sandnigger"?  In many places in this country, that's totally okay.

3. They don't realize that most Muslims aren't Arab.  Going back to point #1, the imagery of what it means to be Muslim in the United States is so tied in with our images of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf (not even the Arab world on the whole!) that even on progressive blogs, you will often see people refer in blanket terms to Muslim women's dress as "the burqa."  What they don't seem to realize is that the countries with the largest Muslim population are all in Asia (where, mind you, women don't even wear the burqa), and not Arab at all!

4. They mistake non-Muslims and non-Arabs for Muslims and Arabs.  In the years since 9/11 (though before as well), many groups have become collateral damage in racist attacks against Arabs and Muslims in the U.S.  Iranians, Greeks, Sikhs, Hindus, and sometimes, anyone with a beard seems to be a target. 6 years ago, a Hindu was mistaken for a Muslim in Boston and beaten. . .and just last week, as noted above, it happened to a Greek priest.

5. They think "Middle Eastern" is a race.  Except on the census.  While the region also known as the Middle East and North Africa is often referred to as "the Arab world," the latter is somewhat of a misnomer and more accurately refers to a shared language (kind of like the way Latino is often used).  From Morocco to Saudi Arabia, there are Arabs, but there are also Amazigh (Berbers), Moors, Bedouins, and plenty of other native groups that prefer not to be referred to as "Arab."  But when they come to the United States, it doesn't matter anyway, as they're expected to check the "White" box. . . imagine arriving from Mauritania, on the continent of Africa, and being told you can't check the "African-American" box.  True story.

6. They assume that all Arabs are Muslim.  I love this one. . . It never ceases to amaze me the blanket statements made about "that part of the world," and "their practices."  Nevermind the native Coptic, Maronite, and Orthodox Christian populations, the converts, the Jews, the Druze, the Zoroastrians, the Baha'i.  And if on the off chance you do meet someone who is aware of those other populations, they're still likely to try to convince you that they're those populations are all oppressed by the Muslims, anyway.  Which brings me to my last and most important point. . .

7. They pretend it's not racism.  So, Islam is not a race, and to many, "Arab" isn't either. . . It doesn't matter: there is plenty of evidence of racism against all of the aforementioned groups. In fact, there's significant evidence to suggest that systematic racism is practiced against Muslims and those with Muslim or Arab-sounding names (regardless of actual faith) in a number of places.  This BBC article discusses the racist practice of not hiring Arabs and Muslims based on name alone (in France). Though I'm not aware of any study, I've seen the same happen in the U.S. And the exclusion of North Africans from being qualified as "African-American" on the census and on scholarship applications (again, they're supposed to check the "white" box) means they're doubly discriminated against: Not really white, but not non-white enough to benefit from certain programs.

And that's only the beginning -- as we saw in a video Macon posted last week, Muslims (especially Muslim women who wear hijab) are often assumed not to be American, even when they were born here.  Arabs are pulled to the side for "random checks" nearly every time they fly.  And more often than not, when an Arab or Muslim does commit a crime, the entire Arab and Muslim communities are expected to speak out against it (ask yourself: would we expect the same every time a Christian or white person committed a crime?).

Here's a thought: Perhaps if people, and the media, made more of an effort to know the difference between a Muslim, an Arab, a Persian, a Hindu. . . or better yet, a Moroccan, a Syrian, a Saudi, a Kuwaiti. . . Perhaps if everyone made more of an effort to see people as unique peoples from particular countries and cultures, or better yet -- as individuals! -- they would be less likely to commit atrocious acts against them based on assumptions.  Perhaps they would be less likely to expect Muslims as a group to speak for one individual Muslim, and perhaps they'd be more likely to understand that an entire mass of 325 million people who just happen to share a common language most certainly do not share a common perspective.

Monday, November 16, 2009

punk anti-immigrant protesters

Here's a young, white anti-racism activist with some serious satiric brilliance, and the guts to carry it out.

On Saturday, several dozen anti-immigrant activists gathered on the steps of the Minnesota state capital for a Tea Bag rally. A smaller group of counter-protesters also appeared; one of them infiltrated the teabaggers and got up to deliver an apparently sincere anti-immigrant speech.

Identifying himself as "Robert Erickson," he began with the expected spiel about "a huge immigration problem where I'm from, Minneapolis." It wasn't long before he indicated the immigration menace he was protesting: "European immigrants." His coup de grâce -- getting the crowd to chant along with him near the end of his three-minute speech -- is comic gold.

Here's a transcript of the speech by (a person I'm guessing is not really named) "Robert Erickson":

Hi, my name is Robert Erickson and I’m really excited to be here. It's people like all of you and events like this that make our country great! Give yourselves a round of applause!

I just want to talk about a couple themes this afternoon because I love this country, and I want to see America be the best place it can be.

Mr. Gutierrez is getting ready to propose an immigration bill in just a few short days, and we have to make sure he knows that we want a bill that’s tough on immigration. Now is the time for us to stand up and make our voices heard!

In Minneapolis, where I’m from, we have a huge immigrant population that’s been causing a number of problems. With the economy in recession, and so many people getting laid off, and unable to find work, immigrants should not be competing for the few jobs that are out there. It's just not fair to the folks who have a claim to this land and the right to be here. All across America, they are contributing to the flooding of our job markets making it hard for American’s to find jobs. Well I’m fed up, and its time to let our politicians know that enough is enough, and we’re not gonna take it any more!

We need to secure our borders to protect this country. We need to restore order and put an end to the anarchy that’s sweeping the nation. We need tougher immigration laws to make sure that we send these people back where they came from. We need to protect the sovereignty of the real Americans. We need to hold our politicians accountable.

Its no secret that with an invasion of immigrants, comes waves of crime. We see them involved in massive theft, in murder, and bringing diseases like smallpox, which is responsible for the death of millions of Americans. These aren’t new problems though; they've been going on for hundreds of years, and continue to this day.

I say its time for us to say "enough is enough!" Are you with me? Are you with me?

Let's send these European immigrants back where they came from!

I don’t care if they are Polish, Irish, English, Italian, or Norwegian! European immigrants are responsible for the most violent and heinus crimes in the history of the world. We're talking about genocide and slavery! I want more workplace raids, starting with the big bankerss downtown. There are thousands of illegals working in those buildings, hiding in their offices, and taking Dakota jobs. Let's round them up and ship them out. Then we need to hit them at home where they sleep, I don’t care if we separate families, because they came here illegally!

So, if we aren't able to stand up to these European immigrants, who can we stand up to? We need to send every one of them back home, right now.

Thank you very much, and we’ll see you in the streets!

Columbus go home! Columbus go home! Columbus go home!

[crowd picks up the chant]

Okay, I'll be honest: apparently, the anti-immigrant protesters didn't chant along with "Erickson"; the counter-protesters did. As Sally Jo Sorenson writes at Bluestem Prairie in her eyewitness account,

Most of the MINN-SIR supporters were slow to catch the satire, and so the cheering from that side of the crowd took a while to subside. As they realized they'd been punked, they stood in a cold, stunned silence, while the 30 or so counter-protesters urged Columbus to go home.

Sorenson goes on to describe their subsequent, violent reaction:

Unfortunately, some of the pro-MINN-SIR audience made up for what they lacked in humor through the use of violence. Both Danielson and I saw middle-aged men attack young protesters, knocking one off a bike before he started throwing punches at the young man.

Just as shocking was the reaction of the state police working the rally, who pushed back those being attacked, rather than those attacking the counter protesters.

With the Obama Administration promising to take on immigration reform soon, this Minnesota scuffle looks like a portent of things to come. As David Neiwert writes at Crooks and Liars, "If you thought the town-hall teabaggers went nuts over health-care reform, just wait."

take a moment to celebrate cnn's dumping of lou dobbs

What a joy it was last week to hear that CNN's resident angry-white-guy and hate-monger, Lou Dobbs, has resigned. In the following good-bye, Nezua, of "Unapologetic Mexican" fame, provides a solid overview of the context that gave rise to Dobbs and his ilk -- a context in which cruel inhumanity to immigrants and their families has become an accepted norm.

You can also view this video in a dark room at Nezua's XOLAGRAFIK Theater, or at La Frontera Times . (I also recommend Nezua on Tumblr: "Imaginando")

Saturday, November 14, 2009

get fed up sometimes with their white liberal acquaintances

This is a guest post by Harriet Jacobs, who blogs at Fugitivus. She describes herself as "a mid-twenties white girl living in the Midwest. I work at a non-profit that assists families and deals with a lot of racial politics." Regarding her pseudonym, she writes, "My username is Harriet Jacobs, an homage to the author of an autobiography of a life in and escape from slavery. Harriet Jacobs was a helluva woman. . . . I’m not trying to build up a comparison, even metaphorically. I’m just trying to tell you that Harriet Jacobs is the shit."

This post is part of Harriet's "Daily Dose of Racism Series," which continues here.

A conversation with white, liberal, educated acquaintances took a turn into Conservative Talk Radio Land once the subject of Affirmative Action was breached. All these acquaintances have, in the past, even in the same conversation, complained about the total incompetence of many of their fellow white students, but those complaints never took the extra step of assuming these incompetent students attend school due to unfair advantages conferred upon them by their race.

As soon as race became a factor, all the liberal racism came pouring out, from the disclaimers about how certainly “they” and “those” and “inner city” people have had unfair advantages from the start, how some of them don’t even know how to raise their children, and racism is bad, y’all. I’ve come to consider this the white liberal way of saying “I’m not racist, but,” now that “I’m not racist, but” has become a more identifiably racist phrase. Now it’s “I have a tertiary, surface understanding of and sympathy for the buzzword social issues I generally hypothetically know racism is a part of, but black people sure are stupid.”

I acted out a little. When talking with liberal white racists, the kind who stumble like frightened rabbits over “AfricanAmerican black colored uh personofcolor I mean colorblindcolorblindcolorblind,” but can say quite clearly and without a fear-ridden speech impediment, “Some of these people don’t even know you’re not supposed to hit children,” I like to rephrase things more bluntly. Nine times out of ten, it just makes everybody too uncomfortable to go on. One time out of ten, it triggers a healthier, more honest and genuine discussion, now that the pent-up “is it okay that I say this?” is out of the bag. I said, “Programs like affirmative action are made to make whites feel better about being racist, because look, we threw all this money at the darkies and they’re still stupid drug addicts on welfare. Obviously we can’t do anything to fix these people.”

Unfortunately, this time, neither thing happened. There was just a general nodding of heads and, “Yeah, white racists, they’re bad,” before a segue into, “There’s this not-white kid in my class who is like soooooo dumb and seriously, you’ve got to figure that’s why he’s even there.”

Okay, so this is a racist thing, obviously, but it’s not the point of my post. Neither is affirmative action the point of my post, because I have a sort of complicated opinion about that. My point is, my white acquaintances presumed an awful lot on our shared ethnicity. They presumed that this was a safe social space to express their racist beliefs, and have them reassured as normal (white), rational, and logical (unracist) beliefs. They presumed that I would either agree, not care, or not disagree enough to argue. And they presumed all that because I am white.

That did not feel like a safe social space to me. As I started to disagree, I could feel the undercurrent of uncomfortable hostility begin to grow. When I went quiet, the hostility just grew in me instead. Which is maybe a little like what it’s like to be not-white. I didn’t feel comfortable making what was obviously a passing chit-chat — “Did you hear about the guy who threw his shoes at Bush? Oh, that’s funny. Yeah, the weather’s been bad. No, school’s okay, except black people are stupid. Hey, how’s your mom?” — into a centerpiece of awkward unexamined beliefs that trigger conflicted rage and guilt. That was not the casual evening I envisioned when I went out for a goddamn burger with some folks I knew.

I didn’t feel comfortable doing that because I knew it would have gone a whole lot of nowhere — liberal white racism is oftentimes as bulwark and unassailable as white power racism — and I would have ended up fuming for days, over people whom I have very little emotional investment in. And that also bothered me. These acquaintances are not the most important people in the world to me, not by far. They are nice enough. I was not seeing us becoming closer friends, but I wasn’t set against that happening. Except, now I am. Because that is not a safe social space for me. Because while, if the stars aligned, I may have been happy to put the effort and energy into forming a deeper, friendlier relationship with them, I am not willing to put the effort and energy into explaining to them that racism is bad, and also, by the way, that was some racist bullshit out of your mouth there. I don’t want to explain that any more than I want to explain to somebody that you don’t come into my house and shit on my rug — they’re adults and they should goddamn know.

This is what comes of being the “right” race in a racist society. You are an assumed depository for vile, racist conversations and opinions, and your assumed compatriots operate under the belief that this is not damaging, enraging, difficult, isolating, or painful to hear. I do not feel like an overtly radical person. On the spectrum of anti-racism, I consider myself a tick to the left of moderate. But even that perception is radical, because to get there, I’ve had to move my liberal white friends a whole football field to the right of moderate, into “I’m not racist racist, but I am better, smarter, and more rational than the hypothetical dark masses that exist in my brain” territory. But just by virtue of believing that incompetent black people have the right to be as proportionally represented in higher education as incompetent white people, I am too radical to be friends with most white people I know. Which, being white and only moderately anti-racist, just about everybody in my life are white people I can’t be friends with.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

watch dancing-kid videos

Try to be honest -- what are your initial thoughts and feelings when you watch the first minute or so of this video?

Now try this one, of a white girl dancing to African (anyone know the particular country?) music. Try to be honest -- are your thoughts and feelings any different about this one?

No need to mention fears you might've had about the first child falling off the table -- that's too obvious, and maybe even derailing.

h/t to Kit, who has a great post about the first video at Keep It Trill. Good comments there also; the racially marked contrast in the comments at YouTube for these two videos is instructive too.

At Kit's place, where a commenter named soul linked to the second video above, I wrote the following in a comment:

I'm a white American, and that means that I'm trained to see white and black people differently. More to the point, I've been unconsciously trained to trust unfamiliar white people and fear unfamiliar black people. So as I watched this video, I eventually got around to seeing it as the innocent, harmless fun that you see it as.

But, I'm willing to admit that it took awhile for me to see it that way. I think I did see blackness first, and heard "that" music, and saw "that" kind of dancing. And so, at first, certain feelings were triggered -- associations, ones that I've been taught to feel when I encounter poor, urban, and thus supposedly dangerous black people. I'm still more likely to have words like "thug" come to mind with black people in such a situation, words that don't come to mind when I encounter white people basically doing the same damn things.

However, I think I have come to recognize, with a lot of hard, "anti-racist" work on myself, that 1) while those trained, unwarranted, and racist feelings are deeply embedded in me, and they're still going to kick in sometimes, 2) I can push past those feelings, and look more realistically at the human beings in front of me. And so, after a minute or so, I was watching this baby dancing and just having fun, and I was soon thinking, well, cool, that DOES look like simple, innocent fun. (And yes Kit, I think this particular white male did feel some jealousy too -- I wish my suburban middle-class family had been able to relax enough to have what looks like joyous, full-bodied fun -- we never danced together, at all.) (And no, I don't think now that all black people dance better and all that, etc.)

I also really appreciate soul's comparison of the other video, which I've seen before. And yes, none of those feelings about "thugs" or corruption of this young child came to mind when I watch that video, and that has everything to do with that girl's whiteness.

I'm glad that I can now see these two videos as basically the same, wonderful thing, even though I've been trained not to.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

reap the benefits of affirmative action for whites

Ever since the mid-1950s, the United States has used November 11th to honor its military veterans. Prior to that time it was called Armistice Day, a "day to be dedicated to the cause of world peace," according to a Congressional Act. In 1953, a shoe-store owner in Emporia, Kansas named Al King promoted the idea of focusing the holiday on military veterans; the U.S. government eventually agreed, and the day is now officially labeled Veterans Day.

As a white American who fights off a steady barrage of inducements to forget about my whiteness, this day reminds me of the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, a massive government program more commonly know as the GI Bill. Millions of white Americans today continue to enjoy benefits handed out under this bill, benefits that were by and large denied to non-white Americans.

In fact, these benefits of the GI Bill have been so generous and extensive that Sociologist Karen Brodkin has aptly labeled the Bill the "biggest and best affirmative action program in the history of our nation." Brodkin also points out that the GI Bill "was for Euromales. That is not how it was billed, but it is the way it worked out in practice."

As Brodkin goes on to explain in her book, How Jews Became White Folks & What That Says About Race in America, the GI Bill's extensive benefits helped returning WW II veterans re-integrate themselves into society -- certain veterans, that is. Jewish American veterans had been recently welcomed into an expanding notion of American whiteness, so Jewish American men reaped benefits that they would have had trouble garnering in the more overtly anti-Semitic American climate before the war.

Unfortunately, the benefits were basically denied to returning non-white veterans, including many white and non-white women. Gains made by women and non-white workers in the war-time industrial boom were also retracted, as de facto affirmative action for returning "Euromale" veterans meant firing such people to provide jobs for white men.

As Brodkin explains in her book,

The GI Bill of Rights . . . is arguably the most massive affirmative action program in American history. It was created to develop needed labor force skills and to provide those who had them with a lifestyle that reflected their value in the economy.

The GI benefits that were ultimately extended to 16 million GIs (of the Korean War as well) included

  • priority in jobs -- that is, preferential treatment, but no one objected to it then
  • financial support during the job search
  • small loans for starting up businesses
  • and most important, low-interest home loans and educational benefits, which included tuition and living expenses.
This legislation was rightly regarded as one of the most revolutionary postwar programs. I call it affirmative action because it was aimed at and disproportionately helped male, Euro-origin GIs. . . .

The reason I refer to educational and occupational GI benefits as affirmative action programs for white males is because they were decidedly not extended to African Americans nor to women of any race. Theoretically they were available to all veterans; in practice, women and black veterans did not get anywhere near their share. . . .

During and after the war, there was an upsurge in white racist violence against black servicemen, in public schools, and by the Ku Klux Klan. It spread to California and New York. The number of lynchings rose during the war, and in 1943 there were anti-black riots in several large northern cities. Although there was a wartime labor shortage, black people were discriminated against when it came to well-paid defense industry jobs and housing. In 1946, white riots against African Americans occurred across the South and in Chicago and Philadelphia.

Gains made as a result of the wartime civil rights movement, especially in defense-related employment, were lost with peacetime conversion, as black workers were the first to be fired, often in violation of seniority. White women were also laid off, ostensibly to make room for jobs for demobilized servicemen, and in the long run women lost most of the gains they had made in wartime. . . .

Black GIs faced discrimination in the educational system as well. Despite the end of restrictions on Jews and other Euro-ethnics, African Americans were not welcome in white colleges. Black colleges were overcrowded, and the combination of segregation and prejudice made for few alternatives. About 20,000 black veterans attended college by 1947, most in black colleges, but almost as many, 15,000, could not gain entry. Predictably, the disproportionately few African Americans who did gain access to their educational benefits were able, like their white counterparts, to become doctors and engineers, and to enter the black middle class. . . .

Karen Brodkin's explanation of the racist effects of the GI Bill -- one among many examples of a long and ongoing history of affirmative action for whites -- is the best and clearest I've read so far. What I find especially valuable is how she illuminates the construction of some of the deeper underpinnings of "institutionalized racism," a reality that many white Americans seem to find too abstract to keep firmly in mind. Thanks to the generational transference of these benefits, the lives of vast numbers of white Americans continue to be buoyed up by the effects of the GI Bill; also, like other white privileges, this array of advantages has come at the ongoing expense of non-white Americans.

Regarding these broad and powerful institutional effects of the bill, Brodkin writes,

The record is very clear. Instead of seizing the opportunity to end institutionalized racism, the federal government did its level best to shut and double-seal the postwar window of opportunity to African-Americans’ faces. It consistently refused to combat segregation in the social institutions that were key to upward mobility in education, housing, and employment.

Moreover, federal programs that were themselves designed to assist demobilized GIs and young families systematically discriminated against African Americans. Such programs reinforced white/nonwhite racial distinctions even as intrawhite racialization was falling out of fashion. This other side of the coin, that white men of northwest European ancestry and white men of southeastern European ancestry were treated equally in theory and practice in regard to the benefits they received, was part of the larger postwar whitening of Jews and other eastern and southern Europeans.

As the title of Brodkin's book suggests, her interest in the effects of the GI Bill on Jewish Americans is personal -- it helps to explain the relatively greater success of her Jewish American family. However, I think that other white Americans should take her insights personally, by figuring out how this de facto white affirmative action program, like many others, has increased their own access to "the American Dream." As we white Americans continue attributing the relatively greater success that we and our ancestors have achieved to fighting off foreign enemies, to working hard, and to tugging on our proverbial bootstraps, we should also understand the institutional leg-ups that have been extended to us, but not to others.

As Brodkin writes of her own favorably whitened background,

To say that Jews pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps ignores the fact that it took federal programs to create the conditions whereby the abilities of Jews and other European immigrants could be recognized and rewarded rather than denigrated and denied. The GI Bill and FHA and VA mortgages, even though they were advertised as open to all, functioned as a set of racial privileges. They were privileges because they were extended to white GIs but not to black GIs. . . .

Jews and other white ethnics’ upward mobility was due to programs that allowed us to float on a rising economic tide. To African Americans, the government offered the cement boots of segregation, redlining, urban renewal, and discrimination.

PS -- for a look at how the GI Bill was explained to veterans at the time, here's a newsreel prepared for them by Army-Navy Screen Magazine:

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

celebrate the birthdays of tv shows

Happy 40th Birthday "Sesame Street"!

This children's show first aired on November 10, 1969. I have fond childhood memories of "Sesame Street," not the least of which is its richly diverse casting, including the children, the adults, and the muppets. Even the cartoons:

I first posted this cartoon here, in a piece that also acknowledges the relatively progressive racial portrayals and content on "Sesame Street," and contrasts it with other mainstream children's entertainment.

Here's hoping that "Sesame Street" lasts at least another 40 years.

Monday, November 9, 2009

take surveys

A reader named M. Pintar wrote in with a request for this blog's white readers, and I've turned it into this post for both white and non-white readers.

M. is doing a university-level research project on white "race traitors," and she's requesting that the white readers of this blog who self-identify as anti-racists take a brief online survey (link below). I've included the survey's questions below so you can see what you'd be getting into, and so that anyone, white or non-white, can leave responses to any of the questions here at swpd as well, in a comment.

M. explains her project this way:

I'm basically looking into how and why white people are or become anti-racists (i.e. "race traitors"). I'm doing this because I believe (as a white person) that it's important to figure out how and why white allies are created/made so that we can better understand how to continue educating fellow whites in order to fight white privilege and racism more efficiently. I'm especially interested in the role of blogs in the creation of white allies, so there is even a specific question pertaining just to blogs in the questionnaire.

Here's a link to the anonymous survey itself (it took me less than ten minutes to fill it out).

After requesting your gender, sexual orientation and age (all of which, like the questions below, are skippable, if you prefer), the survey asks the questions below. The survey is for white folks, but again, if you're white or non-white and you'd like to respond to any of these in a comment here, please do.

I would especially appreciate answers in the comments here to some of these questions from non-white readers; it would also be great if some of the more quiet white lurkers would come out for the survey itself, but also in a comment to this post.

  • Do you consider yourself a white anti-racist? If so, why? If not, how do you identify your orientation towards issues of race and racism?
  • What led you to adopt this identity? (If you have always considered yourself a white anti-racist, why is this?)
  • Do you feel that experiencing (an) oppression helped you come to anti-racism? If yes, please explain (for example, experiencing disablism, transphobia, homophobia, sexism, etc.).
  •  Was there one concept (in coming to an anti-racist consciousness) that, when you learned it, gave you a "click" moment? If so, what was it, and what was the "click" moment like? (for example: the concept of white privilege, hegemony, intersectionality, etc.)
  • Have blogs aided in your development as an anti-racist? If so, how?
  • Are there any books, movies, music or media in particular that helped you discover or encouraged your exploration of white privilege?
  • Do you think there is one way in which most white anti-racists primarily are "made"? If so, what is it?
  • What do you think is the most important thing white anti-racists can do as allies to people of color in the fight against racial oppression?

Sunday, November 8, 2009

fail to see when they're acting white©

This is a guest post by Leland J. Anderson, who describes himself as "a Los Angeles based writer who spends far more time playing video games than writing. He doesn’t take the corporate media, swine flu, the Cowboy’s secondary or himself very seriously at all."

A friend of mine who was raised and educated outside the United States asked me once, “Why aren’t you angry all the time?” The question was in the context of a larger discussion we were having about racism and, to my mild surprise, he was quite serious.

I responded, only half-joking, that not only did I lack the emotional fortitude to maintain such a profound state of rage but, frankly, it wasn’t worth it. There were simply too many other important things for me to expend my mental energy on to worry about every insult, transgression or thoughtless remark.

We mused over why race had not been a stumbling block to our friendship the way it seems to be between most people of different races in this country, who self-segregate from grade school through college and into professional life. I concluded that I didn’t harbor any resentment towards him or any of my friends and co-workers who were overwhelmingly non-POC because: A) we all had a lot in common, B) they were cool people, and C) they never ignored the fact that I was black, nor treated me differently because of that. I attributed their behavior to what I have concluded is a fundamental cultural difference among non-POC: these people that I knew weren’t White© -- they were Caucasian.

My Caucasian friend was, quite naturally, puzzled and asked me to explain. I said something to the effect of, “Caucasians, colloquially speaking, are people of a European ethnic background who basically go about their lives trying to make a way like everybody else, treating each person they meet as an individual and judging them accordingly. Conversely, 'White©' people are too busy being 'White©' to bother with much else.”

What I meant by the latter is that such people have fully invested themselves in what I call the brand identity of Whiteness©. They embrace, whether consciously or unconsciously, the structures of White© privilege, internalizing and then outwardly manifesting the presumed superiority and value of their opinions, actions and worldview as White© people.

White© people are necessarily smarter, more capable, more entitled to the fruits of success because they cannot conceive otherwise. Their Whiteness© imbues them with a kind of inoculating narcissism that aggressively militates against empathy or compassion or, in some cases, common sense. They feel and believe that this is their America, their ancestors’ hard work (i.e. slavery, Native American genocide, etc.) made it great and, by that logic, their personal attributes and those alone are responsible for whatever success they may achieve (as opposed to generations of institutionalized advantage, a fact to which they remain obstinately oblivious).

My use of the word Caucasian, however antiquated the term, solely refers to someone's European origin. On the other hand, to be White© is to rely almost exclusively on a set of learned behaviors, all rooted in the notion that anything not White© is unconditionally outside the perceived norm and inferior.

Caucasians can and do speak out against injustice when they see it. They accept people, warts and all, and don’t attribute faults to a color or a background.

White© people fail to see anything fundamentally wrong with income inequality, housing and employment discrimination, or even plain old run of the mill racism. There’s always some rationale or extenuating circumstance for their statements/actions. White© people think they can draw a clear line from baggy jeans, hip-hop and bilingual education to the fall of western civilization.

After that conversation, I began to question the validity of my theory, until this past Halloween when another close friend, who happened to be Caucasian, did something very White©. I emailed him to ask that he remove a Halloween photo of himself he had posted online. He was dressed as a notorious and flamboyant sports figure that happens to be black, and yes, he painted his face and hands with what certainly looked like shoe polish.

Suffice to say I was not amused, but more I was troubled by his failure to see the problem. Happily, he pulled the photo after a brief exchange wherein he proffered a few textbook White© defenses of odious behavior.

“This other black person thought it was hilarious/didn’t say anything.” “Why are you being so sensitive?” “It’s just a costume.” And so on.

I say this episode ended happily because he ultimately realized that he’d done something offensive and apologized sincerely. Further, he expressed interest in understanding what was wrong about what he did. This behavior seemed to support my theory that being Caucasian is just something you’re called, but being White© is putting where you choose to live, who you let your kids play with, and who you hire/fire or invite into your home through a pernicious racial litmus test.

To return to my friend’s original question, another reason I'm not angry all the time is because I don’t know many White© people. I often see them lampooned on "The Daily Show," but the vast majority of my interactions with non-POC are generally positive. I continue to make this W© v. C distinction because it helps me avoid the very traps that White© people fall into on a routine basis. Assuming people are Caucasian, that is, different from me in only a superficial way, until they prove otherwise, allows me to deal with the reality of being a black man in America. It reminds me to consider that every time I get slow service in a restaurant, pulled over by the cops, treated like an employee in a clothing store or just plain ignored, it’s possible, just possible, that it has nothing to do with the color of my skin.

Friday, November 6, 2009

fear backlash

Some white Americans fear that as population changes gradually turn them into a minority, members of other races will do bad things to them. Some also fear a numerical decline and even erasure of the "white race."

"Make more babies!" some of them shout at their fellow white people. "Fear the demographic winter!" others shout in a more apocalyptic mode, worried about a supposed global threat to Western (i.e., "white") Civilization, because of declining "white" birth rates.

As for me, that's not the kind of backlash I fear, in part because I don't think the "white race" ever really existed -- racial "whiteness" is just a fictional and elastic notion that's been applied to disparate groups of people who happen to appear similar to each other. I also see no evidence supporting common white fears that racial minorities who have suffered from the ongoing reign of white supremacy are going to start collectively hurting and killing white people in order to hasten its demise, and to wreak revenge.

The word "backlash" comes to mind for me instead when I hear about incidents like yesterday's shootings at Fort Hood. Before Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan went on a rampage, he allegedly yelled "Allahu Akbar!" That, and his name, and his attire, and thus his supposedly being "un-American," will surely stoke the racist flames of white-minded reactionaries. So while I grieve for those whom Hasan injured and killed, what I fear is that because of the "profile" that Hasan matches, people who somehow look "Arab" and/or "Muslim" to other Americans are going to get hurt, and maybe killed.

If you're an Arab American and/or a Muslim in America, I'm guessing that you're feeling more tense today. And if you're not an Arab American and/or a Muslim, and if you care about a racist, xenophobic backlash against such people, maybe you can prepare yourself for the possibility that you'll actually see it happen.

The backlash can come in many forms, and it can arise in many situations, even the most mundane. One of those situations happens often enough that it might even have a name now -- "Shopping While Arab." For me, watching staged incidents, as in the following video, can help. Thanks to the makers of this television program, I can better decide beforehand, more clearly and firmly, that I won't be an idle bystander. I won't cower and fade into silent complicity.

In this experiment, 13 people stood up against overt anti-Muslim hatred; 6 stood up in support of such actions; and 22 said and did nothing.

Watch for the two heroic young women near the end of this clip. How nice it is -- how hope-inspiring -- that they're young.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

take racism more seriously when white people discuss it

This is a guest post by Jennifer, who blogs at Mixed Race America. Jennifer describes herself as a "30-something professor of contemporary American literature and Asian American literature interested in issues of social justice and specifically how to create spaces to talk comfortably (and sometimes uncomfortably) about race."

The White Spokesperson

When I was in grad school I once told a white friend from Alabama (also a fellow grad student) that there were days when I felt tired just walking into the English Department at our New England University because I knew I'd be the only person of color I'd see the whole day (at the time we were in grad school there was one black Caribbean professor who taught Creative writing and one half-Japanese, half-Jewish professor who taught Literature -- there were five students of color, all of whom were either Asian or Asian American, not all of whom were still in coursework and so may have been off-campus someplace finishing their dissertations). I was trying to express to my friend the loneliness and psychic drain of being one of less than eight people of color amidst a department and grad student population numbering over sixty to eighty (give or take the vagaries of MA and MFA acceptances each year).

My Alabama friend grew quite defensive, demanding to know if I had experienced bad treatment due to race, if I had ever been a victim of racist remarks, and, quite frankly, disputing how I could feel in any way, shape, or form uncomfortable, especially since I wasn't black, but Asian and an Asian American woman at that, which means that I was not only not reviled but revered in terms of being from a valued minority group.

You can imagine my anger and frustration and deep level of hurt. This was a close friend -- someone I had had numerous conversations with about race -- someone who expressed, or seemed to express, a real understanding of race and racial politics, especially black-white relations, especially in the South. We argued, at length, but it was only when another friend, a white male friend, rephrased my words and explained to the Alabama friend my feelings of alienation due to race, that the Alabama friend got it.

And that made me even angrier -- that it took my white male friend to reinterpret for my white Alabama friend what I was saying -- that only through having a white spokesperson was I understood.

I have been thinking about this lately as I've been immersed in reading books about racial passing -- especially because this is something that Black Like Me (by John Howard Griffin) does. Griffin, a white man wanting to understand real race relations between blacks and whites in the South in the late 1950s, took a drug that turned his skin dark, tanned himself, and also added vegetable dye to his skin, and traveled throughout the deep South, passing as a black man. The book charts his growing evolution from being a participant-observer to understanding his own racism as a white liberal. And although the book/Griffin does act in this "spokesman" role, in the epilogue, Griffin is also aware of the role he is playing for other whites about a black experience:

[I]t was my embarrassing task to sit in on meetings of whites and blacks, to serve one ridiculous but necessary function. I knew, and every black man there knew, that I, as a man now white again, could say the things that neeed saying but would be rejected if black men said them.

Unfortunately, this still goes on today -- sexism is taken more seriously when men talk about it; racism more seriously when whites discuss it; homophobia when straight people take on queer issues. And don't get me wrong -- I think we all need allies -- we need to stand up for one another as well as ourselves, or perhaps to see that gaybashing is a form of discrimination that hurts all people and sexism hurts men as much as women, and racism impacts all of us. But it'd also be nice not to need white spokespeople to interpret the very painful experiences of racism that people of color experience.
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