Monday, March 29, 2010

blame the conversation about race for racism

During a discussion yesterday with CNN's Don Lemon on recent acts of racism and threats of violence by members of the tea-party gang, Tim Wise provided a useful analogy for countering those who claim that we shouldn't even talk about racism -- that "talking about racism only divides people," that "there wouldn't be a racial problem if people wouldn't play the race card," and so on:

To blame the conversation about race for racism is like blaming the speedometer on your car for the ticket that you just got. It doesn't make any sense.

I embedded an excerpt from the show below, and the video's transcript below that.

Also, something to note about CNN's general framing of these issues -- which I see elsewhere in the corporate media coverage about racism and threats of violence among tea-party gangs -- is the effort to claim that "heated rhetoric" is coming from both sides of the current political divide. As the show's host Don Lemon says at one point,

This isn't a Republican -- or is it a Republican or Democrat thing? Because language has been used on both sides to sort of stir people and to rile them up and to get them motivated. So it's not -- is it a Republican and Democrat thing?

But really, what kind of "language" are they talking about here? How much racism and threatened violence, let alone heated rhetoric, comes from what constitutes the Left, compared to how much comes from the Right? And how much more willfully does the Right look the other way when people on its side say and do such things? Both Democrats and Republicans strike me as generally corrupt, but in this respect, I see a false equivalency being made (and please, no links to old images depicting George Bush as a chimp -- that's another false equivalence).

I think one reason the corporate media distorts things this way is that they want to establish general "debates," so they can then provide us with discussions between pundits on both sides. However, as billmon points out in a very insightful piece here, this way of framing things -- "Both sides do it!" -- plays into an insidious strategy often deployed by the Right to create such "false narratives":

The specific disinformation technique in play is one I call "mirror image" (or, when I’m in a Star Trek mood, "Spock with a beard"). It consists of charging the opposing side (i.e. the enemies of the people) with doing exactly what you yourself have been accused of doing, typically with a hell of a lot more justification.

So here's the video containing excerpts from the show:


DON LEMON: "What Matters" tonight, the vigorous debate over health care reform has stirred up a lot of emotions across the country including death threats and vandalism against members of Congress. Now, earlier I spoke about the power of words with Tim Wise, he’s the author of "Colorblind," "New York Times" columnist, Ben Zimmer, and Marc Lamont Hill of Columbia University. And I started by asking if the White House had perhaps helped fuel some of the with its own terminology.

TIM WISE: Back in the summer of last year, we’re using the phraseology of a “public option.” I think they were naive in the sense that what they forget is that for the past 40 years, whenever we talk about public anything in this country -- public transportation, public housing, public schools -- an awful lot of people hear, whether it's meant or not, hear people of color as the beneficiaries.

And so, when you put that out there, a lot of the white folks, who already are being told by Limbaugh and Beck that this health care bill is just reparations for slavery, end up having that reinforced by the somewhat naive post-racial rhetoric of the administration. I think they played right into that.

LEMON: And I --

WISE: Yes?

LEMON: Tim, I see Marc shaking his head, trying to get in here. Marc, why are you shaking your head?

HILL: Well, because I think there's been a very consistent strategy from the right to racialize public policies so that poor white people who are often most vulnerable or most in need of those policies will vote against it to align themselves with a certain kind of whiteness, and whiteness as property so that the poor white guy in Mississippi that needs welfare votes against welfare because he thinks he's voting against a poor black woman in Harlem.
LEMON: Right. I want to get Ben in on this. Because Ben you write about language, in the "New York Times," Sunday magazine every Sunday. Words matter, and when you look at -- you've written a little bit about it. How are you seeing the words being played out? Because they can move and motivate people.

BEN ZIMMER: They sure can, and very often there's this kind of a flashpoint and certainly the health care reform debate has been that kind of flashpoint. And with last summer from the town hall meetings and the rise of the tea party movement, we've seen an increasing polarization of the rhetoric, and that has led to some real rancor and we can see that when times are really tense like this, that words really do matter and especially when there are threats to public officials.

That means that everyone has to be cognizant of the kind of tone that they strike, and the kinds of metaphors and figures of speech that are being used may sometimes be inappropriate and sometimes can really be a cause of concern.

LEMON: I want to listen to Sarah Palin as she spoke earlier today, at the tea party rally in Searchlight, Nevada.


SARAH PALIN (R), FMR. VICE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: When I talk about, “it's not a time to retreat, it's a time to reload.” When I'm talking about -- now, media, try to get this right. OK? That's not inciting violence. What that is doing is trying to inspire people to get involved in their local elections and these upcoming federal elections. It's telling people that their arms are their votes. It's not inciting violence. It's telling people, “Don't ever let anybody tell you to sit down and shut up, Americans.”

[I put the rest of the transcript in the Comments]

Saturday, March 27, 2010

white quotation of the week (carter revard)

Carter Revard
(bio below)

Discovery of the New World

The creatures that we met this morning
marveled at our green skins
and scarlet eyes.
They lack antennae
and can’t be made to grasp
your proclamation that they are
our lawful food and prey and slaves,
nor can they seem to learn
their body-space is needed to materialize
our oxygen absorbers--
which they conceive are breathing
and thinking creatures whom they implore
at first as angels or (later) as devils
when they are being snuffed out
by an absorber swelling
into their space.
Their history bled from one this morning
while we were tasting his brain
in holographic rainbows
which we assembled into quite an interesting
set of legends--
that’s all it came to, though
the colors were quite lovely before we
poured them into our time;
the blue shift bleached away
meaningless circumstance and they would not fit
any of our truth-matrices--
there was, however,
a curious visual echo in their history
of our own coming to their earth;
a certain General Sherman
had said concerning a group of them
exactly what we were saying to you
about these creatures:
it is our destiny to asterize this planet,
and they will not be asterized,
so they must be wiped out.
We need their space and oxygen
which they do not know how to use,
yet they will not give up their gas unforced,
and we feel sure,
whatever our “agreements” made this morning,
we’ll have to kill them all:
the more we cook this orbit,
the fewer next time around.
We’ve finished burning all their crops
and killed their cattle.
They’ll have to come into our pens
and then we’ll get to study
the way our heart attacks and cancers spread among them,
since they seem not immune to these.
If we didn’t have this mission it might be sad
to see such helpless creatures die,
but never fear,
the riches of this place are ours
and worth whatever pain others may have to feel.
We’ll soon have it cleared
as in fact it is already, at the poles.
Then we will be safe, and rich, and happy here forever.

[original formatting appears here]

Carter Revard is part Osage on his father’s side. His Osage name (Nompehwahthe) was given to him in 1952 by his grandmother, Mrs. Josephine Jump, in 1952 in Pawhuska, the Agency town where he was born. He grew up in the Buck Creek Valley twenty miles east of Pawhuska, working in the hay and harvest fields, training greyhounds, and graduating from Buck Creek School (one room, eight grades). He graduated from Bartlesville College High and then a radio quiz scholarship to the University of Tulsa, where he took a B.A. in 1952. He then took a B.A. from Oxford University with the help of a Rhodes Scholarship, and then went on to a Ph.D. from Yale University in 1959. Revard has taught at Amherst College and Washington University in St. Louis, and as a Visiting Professor at the Universities of Tulsa and Oklahoma. His scholarly work has been in medieval English literature, linguistics, and American Indian literature. His poetry collections include Ponca War Dancers, Cowboys and Indians Christmas Shopping, An Eagle Nation, and How the Songs Come Down.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

say to people they barely know, "hi, how are you!"

A regular reader wrote to me recently with the request below; it's actually a request of the rest of you. Others have written emails with more or less the same request, so I figured I'd make this an end of the week post:

During the discussion about Oso's post (classism vs racism) the word "community" kept getting used when referring to SWPD. I hadn't really thought about SWPD as being a community, but it is; there's plenty of us regulars. But it also highlighted something I've been thinking about for awhile, which is that the readers of SWPD are all people, above and beyond our work as anti-racists or anti-racist allies. Communities create bonds based on shared experiences and interests; we know we all share interest in anti-racism and a more equal world, but what do we share beyond that?

Maybe it's just because I grew up in the era of BBSes, when there was always an Introductions forum where people talked a little about themselves, but I'm really curious about my fellow commenters, and you as well. 

If you have a day when you need something light-hearted, I'd love to see an introductions post where people can share whatever they want to share. What's their family like? What music do they listen to? What's their happiest memory? What do they do all day? Do they have pets? Whatever they want. We all share anti-racism, but I bet if we got to know each other better we'd find that we have many more commonalities and shared interests than that. :)

Sounds good, and I'll start. I do have a pet, a dog -- and she's getting old! (10 years) That saddens me, and I think it's unfair that animals we get attached to usually age so much faster than we do. Speaking of animals, and fish, I grew up pursuing them so they could end up on our family's plates. I don't do that much anymore. I'll still eat them, though I do avoid consumption of industrialized animal products -- I know too much about what happens behind the scenes.

My tastes in music change all the time -- current faves include Amadou & Mariam, Radiohead (especially In Rainbows), Aphex Twin, Nina Simone, Crystal Castles, David Byrne, Yo La Tengo, Hank Williams, The Very Best, Boards of Canada, Manu Chao, Michachu, and others I'm forgetting.

I buy most of my groceries at a natural food co-op, I volunteer at a local program for prisoners, and I continually plan to get more involved locally (any day now!). I live in a neighborhood that's not completely white, but I do think it's whiter than it should be. I prefer to ride my bike whenever I can. I've lost the bug that I used to have for "travel," and I'm not entirely sure why.

Okay folks, your turn!

associate primitiveness with naturalness

This is a guest post by Lisa Wade, who's one of the hard-blogging sociologists at Sociological Images (where this post first appeared), as well as an assistant professor at Occidental College.

A reader alerted us to a make-up brand called Primitive that makes and sells natural lips sticks, glosses, and pencils. Describing their company, they write:

The company is drawing on familiar associations of primitiveness with naturalness.  We were natural “for centuries,” but have now somehow graduated from naturalness, such that we need to make a special effort to recapture the simple, intelligent, real, and honest beauty of our foremothers.

So, Primitive romanticizes our primitive past while making a questionable assertion about the relationship between time and naturalness.  In addition, the names of their products locate primitiveness in some parts of the (modern) globe and not others:

The products are named after places that are, almost exclusively, in Africa, Latin America, Asia, and the South Pacific.  In a previous post I introduced the idea of “anachronistic space.”  I wrote: “Catherine MacKinnon coined the term ‘anachronistic space’ to refer to the idea that different parts of the globe represent different historical periods.”  In this case, Primitive is counting on our associating a (romanticized) primitiveness with only some places and not others.  It’s 2010 in Mali and Morocco.  They don’t represent our own past, they represent unique modernities.  And the places left out of these product names — largely North America and Europe — don’t represent the future.  They are not wholly modern societies that have shed their primitive past; they, just like all societies, are a mixture of old and new stitched together to form the present.


For more instances in which anachronistic space appears, see our posts on representing the fashion of the Surma and Mursi tribes and Wild African Cream.

And for more on the social construction of the modern and the primitive, see these posts: “Africans” as props for white femininity, Union Carbide brings modernity to the world, primitive Australia cures modern ills, women as carries of tradition and progress, representing the Middle East, equating modernity with permissiveness, and civilizing the Pueblos.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

describe racism as political incorrectness

[A] couple of years ago here in Michigan -- there was a coffee shop chain called "Beaners" that ended up renaming itself Bigby's. The coffee still sucks, but at least it's politically correct.

--a commenter at BoingBoing

Why do a lot of white people shy away from using the word "racist" to describe something that is, indeed, racist? What's up with the preference that many have for euphemisms like "politically incorrect"?

These questions arose for me again as I read one of my favorite down-time sites, BoingBoing. In a brief post entitled "Vintage Sambo's restaurant photos," Mark Frauenfelder linked to a photographer's web site containing such photos. He also wrote the following:

Sambo's is a politically incorrect name for a business, but these vintage photos of the chain restaurant are wonderful.

Before going on to look at the photos, I had to pause and wonder, why did Frauenfelder write "politically incorrect" instead of "racist"? After all, as I'll explain in a moment, what's wrong with the name of that restaurant -- the only reason to call it anything like "politically incorrect" -- is that it's just that, racist.

Here's one of the restaurant photos, which also appears in the BoingBoing post; notice the painting on the wall, an image of a tiger chasing a boy (for a larger image, click here):

The Sambo's restaurant chain began in 1957, and it flourished into 1200 establishments during the Sixties and Seventies; apparently only one remains, in Santa Barbara, California (here's there, um, interesting site). The chain was started by Sam Battistone and Newell Bohnett, whom everyone called Bo -- thus the name, Sambo's. Which certainly doesn't seem like a racist beginning for the restaurant chain's name, buuuuuuut . . .

As Sam and Bo decided how to distinguish the look of their restaurants from others, they also decided to play up the echoes in the name "Sambo" of a famous children's story, The Story of Little Black Sambo. This was a book published in 1899 by a Scottish woman, Helen Bannerman, who lived for many years in Southern India.

The story is familiar to many people, even today -- basically, a very dark, or "black," Indian boy named Sambo goes into a wooded area, loses his clothing to some tigers, who then jealously chase each other around a tree until they turn into butter. Sambo then enjoys this butter on some pancakes made by his mother.

So, if you did look closely at the photo above, Sambo is depicted in the restaurant's paintings in some sort of "traditional Indian" garb, and he's not dark enough that most people would call him "black." The restaurant's decorators lightened the skin of "Little Black Sambo" -- perhaps in deference to the Civil Rights era? -- though I'm not sure if they did so at the outset.

Aside from the stereotypical representation of mildly exotic "Indian-ness," a bigger problem for the restaurant chain is that when Bannerman's book was published in America, various versions depicted the protagonist with features that echoed other stereotypes about African American children, all of which have been summed up as the "picaninny caricature." By 1932, the writer Langston Hughes was pointing out that Little Black Sambo was "amusing undoubtedly to the white child, but like an unkind word to one who has known too many hurts to enjoy the additional pain of being laughed at."

(McLoughlin Bros., 1938) 

This 1935 American cartoon, also entitled "Little Black Sambo," retells the story in a way that shows the American transmogrification of Bannerman's Indian boy into a bumbling, grinning, idiotic and racist caricature, whose mother is also another American caricature -- the mammy figure.

When I was a (white) boy, my parents adopted a black dog. We ended up choosing the name that my mother came up with, Sam. She explained that the dog reminded her of a childhood story, and I remember her using that phrase, "little black Sambo." Come to think of it, that was actually the dog's full name, Sambo; we just called him Sam because it was shorter and easier.

The idea in America that a "Sambo" is a certain image of a black child, or sometimes a child-like adult, lives on. In the movie The Green Mile, for instance, the character Wild Bill calls a prison guard "Little Black Sambo," right after blackening his face by spitting an entire chewed-up Moon Pie on him.

All of which is to say that the name of Sambo's restaurant is thus not "politically incorrect," it's "racist." That's because in its particular cultural and societal context, the name "Sambo's" evokes and perpetuates the Sambo/picaninny stereotype -- no matter how the restaurant owners originally meant that name.

According to a CNN story from 1998, on efforts to revive the faded restaurant chain,

"The cultural understanding of 'Little Black Sambo' is a negative," says Professor Frank Gilliam of UCLA. "It's meant to suggest that people of African descent are childlike, that they're irresponsible, that they're not fully developed human beings."

Carol Codrington of Loyola Law School said the character was used to stereotype African Americans as shiftless and lazy.

So why, as in the case of Frauenfelder's BoingBoing post, and in so many others, do white people use "politically incorrect" to describe that which is actually racist (or sexist, or classist, or heterosexist), and so on?

They often do it, of course, because they just don't agree that this or that action or thing is racist. However, I think they sometimes do it instead because they don't like having their buzz harshed. Or their squee. Or they don't like having their parade rained on, or however you want to put it.

In my experience, saying that something is politically incorrect instead of racist is often a way of avoiding racism, instead of denying it. It can be a way of saying in effect, "Yes, some would say that's bad, or 'racist,' but pausing to really consider that, and all of its implications, isn't something I want to be bothered with right now, because it's really just too much trouble, thank you very much."

In the case of the BoingBoing post, Mark Frauenfelder may well have used "politically correct" instead of "racist" to describe the Sambo's decor because the latter term might have interrupted his reader's ability to, as one commenter puts it, "GROOVE AWAY on the orange/purple/yellow schemes!"

The concept of political correctness, or PC, has of course been discussed and analyzed ad nauseam, and I'm not sure that I'm adding anything new to the discussion here. I do think, though, that Frauenfelder is using the concept in a different way than it's usually used. As with other posters at BoingBoing, I don't detect a reactionary streak in this post by him, nor in his other ones; he doesn't seem like the sort who would complain about "not being able" to use racial or sexist slurs, because he thinks being asked to use less hurtful terms is an infringement on his free speech, and so on. I actually suspect that if Frauenfelder were asked whether Sambo's restaurants are "racist," he would agree.

So, again, I think the use of "politically incorrect" in that post to describe the racism perpetuated by Sambo's restaurants is a way of keeping the taint of that racism out of an otherwise fun and pleasant post about groovy vintage retro restaurant decor. It's almost as if directly acknowledging racism would be like acknowledging a bad smell in the room -- as if that would be a rather rude way of spoiling all the fun.

I've actually noticed this tendency many times among middle-class, college-educated white people. If I bring up or point out something racist, it's often like I burped or farted. In many situations, it's just not a welcome subject for conversation. And if such a subject does come up, describing it as "politically incorrect," or in some other vague, euphemistic terms, and then quickly dismissing it, is much more common than directly describing and discussing it as "racist."

That said, I do think this use of "politically incorrect" as a euphemism for "racist" is similar to other, more reactionary or "conservative" complaints about PC in terms of race in one significant way -- they're both expressions of white privilege. And maybe class privilege as well. People who bear the brunt of oppression usually don't have the luxury of just waving it away like that.

Have you seen or heard "politically incorrect" used as a way of avoiding more direct or blunt terms like "racist"? And have you been in situations where even bringing up racism is considered inappropriate or impolite? If so, do you go along with that, or do you get blunt and impolite?

Monday, March 22, 2010

devalue non-white experience and expertise about non-white countries

This is an email-turned-guest-post by Nomunfo, who writes of herself, "I am of mixed heritage, my dad is black and mom is white but I consider myself a black African. I was born in Liberia but have lived in Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Ghana, and South Africa."

I've been a long time lurker on your blog and I really do enjoy reading the posts and comments. There's something that has been troubling me, and I seem to get a mixed reaction from my friends and worry if I'm overacting.

First a few things about myself. I recently completed my masters program at a prestigious UK university and I am very well traveled. I also speak two languages (French and English). I was born in Africa and lived there for 15 yrs (in several countries too) before moving to the States for high school and college and settling down in Europe. I recently applied for a position at an international institute in Germany that was looking for a research assistant for their Africa Department. I applied but found out a few (2) weeks later I had not received the position.

I browsed the page two weeks later to find out who had been selected over me, and it was a girl who was completing her Ph.D. I searched for work she had done and scholarly publications and found that she had done quite some research on the continent, but had never been there. So I spoke to my friends and asked them if it was fair to pick a Ph.D student who had never been to Africa over a Master's student who had lived in several African countries.

Most of my white friends believed that because she had a Ph.D and had published works that she was more qualified than myself. I told them that this is something White People tend to do, hire a white person who has never spent a day on the continent instead of someone who has lived in that part of the world. My best mate said I was being completely unfair to this girl who I did not know and was bitter about not being selected.

I will admit that I was a bit hurt because I do believe I was adequately qualified for that role. Now I worry that I may have overacted and that I should accept that this girl is way more qualified than I am.

Are my friends right?

The reason I concern myself with such issues is that very often, the continent and its people are painted in unfavorable manners. Having lived there, I understand the politics and the issues people face. I've still got family there. Often time what upsets me is that most of the people (in the World Bank, UN, IMF) implementing policies that affect most countries in Africa have not lived on the continent and do not grasp how these policies affect generations.

Anyway I feel like I am ranting. Hope you can offer some advice.


PS....Feel free to post this on your blog. I would like to get some feedback from your very insightful and intelligent readers.


What do you think, dear readers?

Since Nomunfo asked for my thoughts, here's what I wrote in return -- I kept it brief, because I'm sure readers here have more experience with such situations than I:

I don't think you were being paranoid. Unfortunately, it seems that you can't know for certain why she was chosen and not you, but I think it's likely that white/Western ways of knowing were privileged unjustly over your more experiential knowledge. Also, I think your white friend displayed a common white tendency, which is to rather arrogantly explain away the probable racism that a black person is trying to point out -- a terrible irony, because the black person is actually more likely to know what is probably racism than the average white person is!

I look forward to hearing what readers have to say, and I hope it all helps you sort through your situation.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

assume that vanilla frosting is "skin" and chocolate sauce is "(white) skin covered in chocolate sauce"

Please skim through these four images of cakes before reading this post more carefully. Then ask yourself, are these cakes all supposed to represent white bodies? Also, what might make a person think that they all do represent white bodies?

An anonymous swpd reader sent me a link to the "Cake Wrecks" blog post that contains these images; I've also included in italics the text that accompanies them in the original post (I haven't reproduced the entire post here).

Ladies, are you tired of that unsightly gut?

Aw. It's so sad when belly dancers let themselves go.

And, men? Do you wish you had a pectorals and not just man ta-tas?
I know this is supposed to be a dude, 
but something really makes me want to censor those nips.

Well the wait is over! Now, with the Abdopectoralbuttmastersizer™, you too can look like a goddess!
A really, really tanned goddess. Covered in oil.
With an outy... and a... wait. Is that an Adam's apple?
Okay... well... it really is a lovely shade of dark orange!

Or so studly, your woman will want to cover you in chocolate sauce and star pasties!

Oohh La La!
(Ga Ga, Romama)

That's right: with the revolutionary Abdopectoralbuttmastersizer™ you are guaranteed to get shredded in places you didn't even know you had! . . . . Call now!

Okay, that's just part of the "Cake Wrecks" post. Note what the writer of the post sees in terms of race -- four white bodies, one of which is "tanned," and one of which is "covered in chocolate sauce."

Among the post's 140+ comments, a conversation ensued about the race(s) of the represented bodies.

As one commenter points out,

Re: really, really tanned & chocolate sauce

 Maybe those were supposed to be cakes of people who aren't, you know, white?

And later, someone else writes,

Man, you wreckies are fast -- you beat me to commenting on the fact that the "tanned" and "chocolate sauce" cakes probably just represent people with brown skin. (Some of us have that, you know.)

After a couple more such comments, the author of the post, "john (the hubby of Jen)," jumps in:

I firmly believe that the man covered in chocolate sauce and pasties is actually from Laos. Or possibly Honduras. Maybe Jamaica.

And the "Really, really tanned" torso actually looks very much like one of the white bodybuilders who has spent many an hour in a tanning booth. Could be African American. Probably tanning booth.



In the first sentence, john seems to be jokingly saying that . . . race doesn't matter? That, because the body's covered in chocolate sauce, the race is indeterminate? And what does that "sigh" mean? Actually, I think I know -- isn't it, basically, "Ugh. Why do you have to drag race into this!"?

Near the end of the thread, yet another commenter points out,

It seems that you assumed that all cakes are of white people, and that all of the people who read this blog are white. That doesn't make this blog a very friendly place for people of color to hang out. I really hope that you will change the comments under the third and fourth photo. . . . the point is not the realism of the cake, the point is that, when looking at cakes portraying brown and black skin, the author of the post assumed that these _must_ be white people _painted_ brown and black rather than people who _are_ brown and black. That's offensive.

In case anyone is interested in my race: I'm white.

Finally, it seems, john has enough of this -- so much that he shuts down the comment thread. But not before another, final, and sighing self-defense:

Alright, I'm done.

I am actually stunned by some of the comments so this will be the last one.

The mottled, dark orange torso cake didn't make me think of an African American because I've never seen an African American with mottled orange skin. I thought of this guy:

See the bad spray tan?

And the fourth one? The one that I so thoughtlessly called "covered in chocolate sauce?" It's because it's COVERED IN CHOCOLATE SAUCE!


I hope some of you thought it was a fun post.


Well, I suppose it was a fun post, if you like laughing at bad cakes.

So what's the common white tendency of note here?

Aside from john's aversion to matters of race, and to seriously considering the possibility that he made a mistake in terms of race, I'm interested in what I also see as an assumption that seems to be at work in the post. And in many of the comments, except those that pointed out this assumption in the post -- that normal, default people, and bodies, are "white" ones.

So, what could lead white people to see cakes that may well represent non-white bodies as instead representing "tanned" and "chocolate-covered" (white) bodies?

I'll close with a quotation that I think provides an answer, a summary of the common white mode of thought that seems to be at work here. It's from film scholar Richard Dyer's excellent book, White: Essays on Race and Culture --

The invisibility of whiteness as a racial position in white (which is to say dominant) discourse is of a piece with its ubiquity. . . . for most of the time, white people speak about nothing but white people; it's just that we couch it in terms of "people" in general. Research -- into books, museums, the press, advertising, films, television, software -- repeatedly shows that in Western representation whites are overwhelmingly and disproportionately predominant, have the central and elaborated roles, and above all are placed as the norm, the ordinary, the standard. Whites are everywhere in representation. Yet precisely because of this and their placing as norm they seem not to be represented to themselves as whites, but as people who are variously gendered, classed, sexualised, and abled. At the level of racial representation, in other words, whites are not of a certain race, they're just the human race. . . .

We have not reached a situation in which white people and white cultural agendas are no longer in the ascendant. The media, politics, education are still in the hands of white people, still speak for whites while claiming -- and sometimes sincerely aiming -- to speak for humanity.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

stumble around aimlessly when they talk about the history of their people

Here's some lighter fare for a Friday -- Stephen Colbert interviewing Nell Irvin Painter, author of a fascinating book that I happen to be reading these days, The History of White People.

Colbert plays his usual bumbling role here, parodying in the process how poorly most white people talk about being white (while also highlighting how a person like himself is "the default American"). Painter gets in a few words edgewise about her book, and I suppose the best thing about the segment is that it brought some well-deserved attention to that book.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Nell Irvin Painter

[If anyone knows of a transcript of this interview, I would appreciate a link]

National Public Radio interview (includes a brief book excerpt)

From a review of Painter's The History of White People --

As Nell Irvin Painter, a professor of history emerita at Princeton University, reminds us, theories of race, grounded in heredity, that today seem bizarre, confusing and contradictory, were widely accepted throughout most of American history. And, although biologists and geneticists no longer believe in the physical existence of "races," the concept lives on, along with racism.

Designed for a popular audience, Dr. Painter's book is a useful synthesis of the evolution of ideas about "white races" from the ancient Greeks to the modern age.

Taxonomists, she demonstrates, never clearly defined race. They sometimes acknowledged the role culture and climate played in determining physical appearance, even as they claimed that the distinctive characteristics of groups were fixed and unalterable.

Sometimes, following the lead of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, who in 1795 gave us the term "Caucasian," they transformed their own standards of beauty (like blue eyes and blond hair) into scientifically certified racial traits.

And sometimes, "even when the judgment of sound scholarship did not suffice," they turned languages into peoples, applying the word "arya," meaning noble or spiritual in Sanskrit, to an imagined superior race of Aryans.

Dr. Painter doesn't hide her contempt for her subjects. With the possible exception of Ralph Waldo Emerson, most of them deserve it.

insist on telling people of asian descent about their own asian experiences

This is a guest post by Jennifer, who blogs at Mixed Race America.  Jennifer -- who recently did a series of posts about her travel in the Southern U.S. with "Southern Man" -- 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."

My intent during this road/research trip I'm making around "The South" was to blog about it every night. But I have been pretty tired the last few nights -- long nights driving and then long days of sight seeing and information gathering. So I'm a bit delayed in my narrative, but that's OK -- I don't need to share every single detail on this blog about what I'm doing!

But I did want to share a bit about our time in Sewanee, TN. I went there, or rather that area, to do research at The University of the South in Sewanee, TN -- an old and revered liberal arts college of the south, as its name clearly implies. There really isn't any place to stay in Sewanee itself, so Southern Man and I made our way to a lovely bed and breakfast inn in Cowan, TN, The Franklin-Pearson Hotel, run by Jared Pearson.

When we got to the inn we were tired (over 8 hours in the car), hungry, and a bit cranky. Or maybe this was just me. Jared directed us to a restaurant, High Point, in nearby Monteagle. I wish I brought my camera because the house that the restaurant was in was a beautiful old stone house, apparently financed by money from Al Capone - -he used the house as part of his bootlegging operations! So there are apparently all these hidden entrances and trap doors and false walls -- at least that's what the brochure to the house said.

Now the thing about small towns in the South is that people love to talk to you. For example, Jared, our innkeeper, told us all about the politics of the town-gown divide between the University of the South and the local communities (something quite common in many small town college communities). And our waiter at the restaurant told us all about the history of the restaurant. And while I was doing research in the archives, Southern Man went to a coffee shop where he met local residents and the owner of the cafe, who also shared all sorts of stories with him about Sewanee and the surrounding area. This is part of what it's like to travel in small towns in the South. People like talking to you.

And for the most part, I've grown accustomed to this. My natural demeanor whenever I travel, whether on an airplane or by car, is to put on a polite face, but one that suggests I am not interested in conversation or small chit chat. Because especially when you are on an airplane, you DO NOT want to get trapped next to the woman who is going to talk to you the entire flight across the continental U.S. about her mother issues (this happened to me once) or the guy who is trying to hit on you and who actually keeps bothering you, even when you have your laptop up and your headphones on (again, another true story).

But after living in "The South" for a few years, I've learned that this is part of the culture of many communities here -- and after all, when in Rome.

However, no matter where I am, I'm never comfortable with a conversation that begins with this opening salvo:

"What part of Asia are you from?"

At the end of our dinner (which was quite good--I had scallops and Southern Man had a NY strip and we ended the evening with creme brulee--YUM), when Southern Man went to the restroom, an older gentleman who had been sitting with his wife (she also was not at the table when he broached me) asked me, "What part of Asia are you from?"

Now, I should tell you that the room that we were in was the size of a small dining room and there were only half a dozen tables in it, and during our meal there was only one other occupied table -- the one with this older white couple -- they looked to be in their late 60s. It was clear that they were listening to our conversation, because at a certain point when we talked about what we were going to be doing when we got to Memphis, the woman chimed in and said, "Oh we're from Memphis! It's lovely -- you should go in May!" Southern Man thanked her -- I didn't even make eye contact with her, I mean, we were in the middle of a conversation and the entrees hadn't come yet and I didn't want to open the door for having to talk to this couple all night long (they seemed the type who would invite you to join them at their table and we were both at 4-tops).

Anyway, this OWM (older white male) asks me the question that I dread -- the variant of "Where are you from/what are you" -- because that's really what he wants to know -- he wants to know what I am. Because since he's been eavesdropping on our conversation all night, he would have picked up on the fact that I have no discernible accent, and since I talked about my research and was working out with Southern Man the different components of my class at Southern U., it should have also been clear that I was not a visiting foreign professor.

So I looked at him, unblinkingly, and asked him to repeat the question -- I was really stalling for time because I wasn't sure how I wanted to answer him -- it was late, dinner was over -- we were waiting for the check. He repeated the question -- admitted that he had been listening to our previous conversation (I had been talking about my grandfather and his life in China earlier, as well as the research that a friend of mine is doing in Cambodia around issues of the tribunals for the former Khmer Rouge and the killing fields), and he wanted to know whether I was from Asia.

I think a quick glance at me would tell you that I appear to be Asian and probably Asian American. Again, he didn't want to know about whether I was from Asia -- there was another motivation behind his line of inquiry -- and perhaps, in hindsight, my 6th sense also told me this from non-verbal cues -- his absolute confidence in how he posed the question -- his assumption that it was OK to talk to me and ask me this question.

So I told him that I was from California and that I consider myself to be Californian. He then moved on to asking me where my parents are from -- he wasn't phased by me putting him off. And I said that my mother was from Jamaica -- which was actually the wrong tactical move to make because I kid you not, his eyes LIT UP and he leaned in towards me and squinted and said,

"I never would have guessed by looking at you!"

At this point his wife had rejoined him, and I realized my error in trying to throw him off -- that it was only going to reinforce his exoticization of me and my family, so I said,

"No, you wouldn't probably because she's Chinese Jamaican."

At this point I was hoping he would drop it and leave me alone -- I was not smiling and clearly not enjoying out tete-a-tete. But that's the thing about white privilege -- it means that those actively employing it -- and I would put this OWM in that category -- don't care about what YOU want -- he only cared about what HE wanted to get out of the conversation.

And what he wanted to demonstrate to me, and perhaps to remind his wife was that he had traveled all over Asia, including Cambodia -- yes, he had heard us talking about Cambodia, he said -- and then he proceeded to list ALL OF THE ASIAN COUNTRIES that he had been to and that he had been to Cambodia DURING THE WAR WHEN HE WAS IN THE MARINES.


This was now THE WORST because not only was I accosted by an OWM, but it turns out that he's a Veteran of the war in Viet Nam and he wants to regale me with bombing stories of Cambodia and to tell me about all the Asian countries he went back to visit over the war (he said that specifically -- that he went back to Asia after the war to see what had happened to it after he left).

Now, I am not trying to diss veterans. I'm sure this man has his share of PTSD stories and that there is a genuine interest that he has in Asia since he has a connection to it that is unique.

However, I don't need to be part of his therapy and I certainly didn't want to hear his stories or to be the conduit for launching into what he was doing in Asia, during and then years after the war.

Luckily Southern Man came back and we quickly left the restaurant. And Southern Man asked me why I didn't turn the tables and ask him and his wife where they were from -- but the truth is, these people wouldn't have gotten the sarcasm -- I would have had to have been really direct and said, "why aren't you asking my white partner where he is from -- why are you focusing on where I'm from?" and as confrontational and direct as I can be, I really just wanted a nice dinner out after a long day of driving and didn't feel like having to deal with having to educate the older white couple about their white privilege.

But it does give me some food for thought and it does make me wonder next time I'm asked this question and it starts to head into the territory of "look at all the Asian countries I've been to!" whether I won't flip the conversation around to the real motivation behind why I'm being asked this question, or whether I won't just simply speak my truth and tell my interlocutor that s/he is making me feel like an orientalized object and I don't want to continue talking with them anymore because I'm not feeling comfortable with their line of questioning.

Which brings up an interesting question for all of us: when we are faced with this kind of weird racial crap, why don't we get more aggressive?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

play the ethnicity card

Happy St. Patrick's Day. I guess. . .

I'd like to be more celebratory today and somehow honor Irish immigration to my country, but what can I say? I don't have Irish blood, for one thing. And more to the point of this blog -- I can't overlook how the U.S. descendants of Irish people, who often put on and take off being "Irish" like a hat or raincoat, tend to forget what it really means for their ancestors to have traded in their Irish-ness for whiteness. Yes, Irish immigrants used to be oppressed, but their descendants have basically joined the ranks of the oppressors, and thereby gained white privilege, and those benefits still come at the expense of the racially oppressed.

It is true that, as sociologist Jessie Daniels writes,

Once in the U.S., the Irish were [subjected] to negative stereotyping that was very similar to that of enslaved Africans and African Americans. The comic Irishman – happy, lazy, stupid, with a gift for music and dance – was a stock character in American theater.  Drunkenness and criminality were major themes of Irish stereotypes, and the term "paddy wagon" has its etymological roots in the racist term “paddy,” a shortening of the name “Patrick,” which was used to refer to the Irish.  However, this is also a gendered image and refers to Irish men, specifically.   The masculine imagery of “paddy” hid the existence of Irish women, but did not protect Irish women from racism as they were often more exposed to such racism through domestic jobs.   Women typically played a key role in maintaining Catholic adherence, which resonates closely with Irishness and difference. The “model minority” (if you will) stereotype of Irish-American women is of a “Bridget,” recognized for her hard work and contribution to Irish upward class mobility.

Simian, or ape-like caricature of the Irish immigrant was also a common one among the mainstream news publications of the day. . . For example, in 1867 American cartoonist Thomas Nast drew "The Day We Celebrate" a cartoon depicting the Irish on St. Patrick’s Day as violent, drunken apes.  And, in 1899, Harper’s Weekly featured a drawing of three men’s heads in profile: Irish, Anglo-Teutonic and Negro, in order to illustrate the similarity between the Irish and the Negro (and, the supposed superiority of the Anglo-Teutonic).   In northern states, blacks and Irish immigrants were forced into overlapping – often integrated – slum neighborhoods.  Although leaders of the Irish liberation struggle (in Ireland) saw slavery as an evil, their Irish-American cousins largely aligned with the slaveholders.

And, following the end of slavery, the Irish and African Americans were forced to compete for the same low-wage, low-status jobs.  So, the “white negroes” of the U.K. came to the United States and, though not enslaved, faced a status almost as low as that of recently-freed blacks.

So yeah, I get that. And I don't mean to downplay or disregard what amounts to racist (and religious) oppression that people from Ireland once faced, nor the hard work that helped Irish immigrants to step up into the ranks of white Americans.

However, I sometimes encounter citizens of the U.S. who claim to be "Irish" instead of white, when anyone looking at them would clearly see them as "white" instead of "Irish." I mean, just how many generations does this sort of "Kiss me, I'm Irish! Don't worry, I'm not white!" card last?

White people still routinely complain about people of color who supposedly "play the race card," but they rarely blame other whites for playing what amounts to the ethnicity card. That card is routinely used to dismiss discussions of today's racism -- "Yeah yeah yeah, my ancestors had it bad too! They were the 'blacks' of Europe, and they even got called black in the U.S.!" And that kind of talk usually leads to this kind of talk: "If my people could do it, why can't they too?" Never mind that those Irish who were called "black" and other slurs didn't have to stay black, and thus didn't have to struggle with all that black and other non-white Americans still have to face.

Do you encounter white people who make these kinds of selective, derailing appeals to the sufferings and hard work of their ancestors?

I'd like to happily drink some green beer today while wearing something green and kissing someone who claims to be "Irish." But too often, the memory of Irish oppression becomes a weapon for beating back explanations of how white racism remains an entrenched, pervasive set of problems.

It's classic, delusional bootstraperism. What a great legacy.


Monday, March 15, 2010

claim that analyzing the ways of white folks is a waste of time (because there are more important things to analyze)

In the course of running this blog, I've come to understand at least two things much better than I did before -- common white tendencies and the broader context in which they occur. That alone has been worth the time and effort to me, but I sometimes wonder what other people get out of this blog.

Regarding the former understanding for myself, "common white tendencies," I've come to see that I myself am more likely to feel, think, and act in racist ways than I realized; I have a lot of common white tendencies, and in order to be a person whose actions are better aligned with his principles, I need to keep working on them. Regarding the latter understanding, "context," I've come to see that racism is so entrenched in my country (the U.S.) and in others, and so pervasive, that I now routinely describe the social order in a way that I didn't before -- I describe it as "de facto white supremacist."

Recently, my use of that phrase tripped up David “Oso” Sasaki, a blogger who linked approvingly to a guest post here. Here's what happened -- and I'm describing it all because I'd like to ask you about what happened. In that swpd post, "K" wrote about her annoyance with white travelers who pursue "authenticity," especially while traveling in non-white countries.

Oso's post, on his blog El Oso, is an interesting meditation on, as I read it, the folly of seeking "authenticity," especially in a world where a misleading sense of the authentic is increasingly manufactured and sold to us. Oso would know, it seems, as he's apparently a very seasoned traveler.

"I highly recommend the post," Oso writes of K's swpd piece, because it "does a great job of treating authenticity as a commodity, which increasingly it is."

So far so good. But then Oso wrote something that I felt compelled to respond to, and I'd really appreciate your response to my brief exchange with Oso, and especially to his final comment below, which includes a condemnation of swpd itself.

After praising K's discussion of white travelers, Oso wrote,

But, as per usual, I disagree that seeking authenticity in other cultures or treating it as a commodity is limited to only whites. One commenter on the post linked to a New York Times article [which] shows that the same search for authenticity in China is leading yuppie Han Chinese to amusement parks celebrating ethnic minorities like the Dai people

I think a lot of readers here would describe this as an example of the Arab Trader Argument -- Abagond's useful term for the problematic pointing-out of other people who also do some of the things that white people do. I left a comment on Oso's post that said, more or less to that effect,

To say, as I do on my blog, that white people have some common tendencies is not to say that no one else has this or that said tendency as well. Rather, it’s worth pointing out that when white people do them, they do them within in an ongoing, de facto white supremacist context. That makes their doing them different from other people’s doing them.

Oso got tripped up on a phrase within that comment, and so he asked in return, "It’s been a while since I roamed the hallways of ivory tower ethnic studies so you’re gonna have to break that one down for me. What exactly does that mean? And how does it differ from what some future Chinese theorist might call 'an ongoing, de facto Han supremacist context'?"

If you're still reading, please hang in there -- I do have something to ask you about. Oso's comment below, especially, got me to thinking about just why I run this blog, and how it may or may not be valuable for various readers.

After explaining what I mean by "de facto white supremacy," I replied to Oso,

I’m just describing the West, including the U.S., as a place that in effect favors whites and disfavors, disregards, delegitimizes, and discriminates against non-whites, at systemic and individual levels. I raised the point [about your post] because I don’t see the value of pointing out that other people also do some of the objectionable things that white people do. In fact, when white people do that kind of pointing out, they’re often doing that in order to deflect attention being paid at the moment to white racism. “But he did it too!” is a playground excuse that should have no place in serious discussions of white racism (not that I necessarily think your pointing out that “other people do it too” was quite that kind of deflection -- or was it?)

Does that make sense?

So finally, here's Oso's comment in return, in which he ends up denouncing a blog (that is, swpd) to which he'd initially linked in a positive way.

What do you think? 

Is Oso making an effective critique below of swpd?

If you're a regular reader of "stuff white people do," what brings you back?

And, does anything in Oso's critique point to ways that you think swpd could be improved (assuming you don't agree with him that it should be shut down)?

Oso wrote,

I take issue with the guest post on your blog -- and with most of the content on your blog in general -- because I don't think that focusing on a critical perspective of just one ethnicity is useful for shaping our thinking about how we can create a more just society.

From what I've read it seems to me that your blog often insinuates that only whites are maliciously discriminatory. If that is the case than those of us who are anti-discrimination should focus all of our efforts on promoting cultural change among the white community. But, throughout my travels I've found that urban, white americans are some of the least discriminatory people I have met. And I mean that both on the surface (panic attacks when deciding between saying "black" or "african american") and deep down (most likely to have close friends of other ethnicities and to think deeply -- as you do -- about legacies of ethnic relations).

I think that one of the illusions of urban, white America -- especially those who don't have many friends of other ethnicities -- is that other groups are not as discriminatory when they are often more discriminatory. It's complex. Dark skinned blacks discriminate against light skinned blacks, and vise versa. Mexicans in Los Angeles discriminate against Guatemalans. And people all over Latin America whisper in your ear "but don't blacks cause a lot of problems in your country?" And that's just ethnicity. When I was in India during 9/11 several hindus told me that the USA should not allow muslims to enter.

My real issue with the framing of your blog (again, at least what I've seen) is that ethnicity is just one of many variables that factor into how we discriminate. Class, religion, taste, geography, accent: depending on the person and situation these factors often transcend ethnicity when we shape our identity and when we discriminate. One of the things that bothers me with soundbites like "what white people like" or "what white people do" is that they are really discussing class and not race. They are describing a demographic that is upper-middle class, urban, and college educated. For whatever reason most of my friends are some ethnicity other than white and just about everything you and the "stuff white people like" guy write applies to them just as much as it applies to me. By claiming that these behaviors and tastes are "white" rather than "urban middle class" you're opening my friends up to criticisms from working class members of their ethnicity that they are "acting white."

Everyone is racist, and whites are surely included. And you're right, when whites are racist it is within a context of centuries of oppressive white racism, which is why it is less acceptable and why you obsess over it. But whites are told that they are racist all the time. You're not changing any minds with what you write. As you can see in the comments on your blog you are either preaching to the choir or you are making people more defensive, more entrenched. You are patient and explanatory in your responses, but I believe you're doing a disservice by only focusing on one small aspect of discrimination. So much social analysis in this country focuses on the "red state-blue state" divide or on race. And in doing so we lose track of just how increasingly divisive class can be. I have a hunch that, like me, you have a diverse group of friends in terms of ethnicity, but that all of them are middle class and almost all are college educated. That is increasingly common, and will become even more common, and it's where we should focus our attention.

I try to learn from criticism. As I told Oso at his blog, I appreciate his thoughtful critique -- even though I obviously disagree with his main point, since I do still run this blog, and I do still focus on white people and de facto white supremacy.

I'd appreciate any responses you might have, about whatever value swpd has for you, and, if you have any suggestions, about how you think it could be improved.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

falsely distinguish between (white) expats and (non-white) immigrants

This is a guest post by Daniel Cubias, who blogs at The Hispanic Fanatic. Cubias also writes a column for the Huffington Post, and he writes of the Hispanic Fanatic, who may or may not be an alter-ego, that he "has an IQ of 380, the strength of twelve men, and can change the seasons just by waving his hand. . . . the Hispanic Fanatic is a Latino male in his late thirties. He lives in California, where he works as a business writer. He was raised in the Midwest, but he has also lived in New York."

The waiter approached our table and recited the specials in a flowery French accent. Because I live in Los Angeles, I assume that every waiter is an actor, especially ones who are speaking with outrageous inflections.

But as it turned out, he was the real deal. Over the course of the dinner, he informed us that former Parisians constituted most of the restaurant’s staff. Evidently, the owner was from France, and he liked to help his fellow countrymen get started in this country.

“So you’re an expatriate,” I said.

“Oui,” he answered.

Now, I’m certainly not going to claim that the French are wildly popular with Americans. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that people in this country were ordering freedom fries.

Strangely enough, I don’t recall anybody asking for a freedom kiss. But I digress.

The point is we can all agree that Europeans, in general, receive kinder greetings here than do people from Latin America. In fact, it’s in the very terms we use.

The French waiter was an expat. It’s a word that evokes a daring and exotic nature, an upscale sensibility. It’s a positive term.

In contrast, we refer to Guatemalans and Colombians and Ecuadorians as immigrants. That word conjures up a lot of connotations, but most of them, alas, are not positive.

What is the reason for this dichotomy?

Certainly, legality has something to do with it. I presume that the French waiter has a work visa. The Mexican busboy, in contrast, may not. But as I’ve written before, the self-righteous screeching over the “illegal” part of the phrase “illegal immigrant” doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. It’s a point, yes, but a minor one.

The differentiation, according to one unimpeachable source, “comes down to socioeconomic factors… skilled professionals working in another country are described as expatriates, whereas a manual laborer who has moved to another country to earn more money might be labeled an ‘immigrant.’”

It’s an arbitrary, even unfair, definition. But it’s accurate.

Still, that doesn’t explain the difference fully. For example, we would never call someone a Mexican expatriate, even if she were a successful businessperson like the owner of the French restaurant. She is forever an immigrant.

At its most basic level, the reason that we view Frenchman and German women and British people as expats, rather than as immigrants, is because we like them better. We respect them more.

It’s right there in the language.

It works the other way too. Any American adult who chooses to live abroad is an expatriate (with the possible exception of Peace Corps volunteers). It really doesn’t matter if you bum around Europe for years or head up the international office in Hong Kong. If you’re an American living in a foreign land, you’re an expat. You won’t be called an immigrant unless a native resents your presence, and even then, you’re more likely to be called “gringo,” “yanqui,” or “member of the invading imperialist army.”

There is, of course, a long history of Americans moving abroad to have their art better appreciated, or at least to sleep with people who have more interesting accents. It’s the Lost Generation of Hemingway, and the Beat Generation of Kerouac, and the Brooding Generation of Johnny Depp (he lives in France, you know).

So perhaps I will do my part and live out that dream I have about moving to London. It might be amusing to see the British try to figure out if I’m an American expatriate or a Latino immigrant.

Perhaps I would be both.

Friday, March 12, 2010

refuse to shut up and listen when people of color explain racism

I've heard a lot of talk about, and analysis of, "internalized racism" and "internalized oppression." The understanding is that a white-dominated society tends to instill in non-white people, especially black people,* an acceptance of racist conceptions of themselves. Recognizing this insidious phenomenon became a primary justification for legal demands in the 1950s that schools and other public spaces be desegregated.

In the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision to desegregate schools, Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren wrote of black children,

To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely to ever be undone.

I've been thinking about that "feeling of inferiority" lately -- or rather, about its opposite. Surely, I've been thinking, there's something like the opposite of "internalized racism" going on inside of white people. If a de facto white supremacist society continues to instill an unwarranted sense of inferiority in non-white children, then doesn't it also instill an unwarranted sense of superiority in white children?

I think it does. As I consider various white people in this light, I repeatedly see in them an unjustified sense of self-confidence when it comes to racial matters. And if I'm being honest, I also see in them, and in myself, a sense of racial superiority.

Feeling "confident" is different from feeling "superior." The latter requires someone to feel superior towards. Someone that we at the same time consider "inferior."

On the one hand, if we're honest, we can quickly see that a general white suspicion of, for instance, black inferiority is rampant in mainstream society and culture. The more I think about this, the more I'm convinced that these racist suspicions and presumptions of black inferiority are deeply implanted into the psyches and emotions of individual white people as well. They make us question black knowledge and authority. They make us doubt black achievement. They make us quick to assume that when black people point out racism, they're being oversensitive. Or that they're reflexively "playing the race card" (instead of thoughtfully and carefully pointing out racism). Or that they're filing a racial discrimination lawsuit because they're paranoid or (again) oversensitive, or worse yet, because they're out for some quick financial gain (a common white suspicion that overlooks both how much more perceptive black people tend to be about what is and isn't racism, and how reluctant black people usually are to file formal charges of racial discrimination*).

So on the other hand, what also interests me is the common white sense of superiority that bolsters such views. People of color are repeatedly perceived as overly emotional, subjective, and uncontrolled; white people are in turn repeatedly assumed to be rational, objective, and in control of themselves. Or, in a word, superior.

I can't help but think that what is surely a common white sense of superiority begins in childhood.

One of the primary pieces of evidence cited in the Brown vs. Board of Education decision was the doll tests conducted in the 1940s by Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark. These African American psychologists found (in experiments that continue to yield similar results today) that most black children prefer white dolls to black dolls. Society teaches them a racial mathematics of sorts, a series of equations or formulas that basically go like this:

     white = pretty
     black = ugly

     white = good
     black = bad

     white = superior
     black = inferior

But then, as I've been saying here -- don't white children learn these equations too? Of course they do.

So, if the common and deeply damaging absorption of such identity-forming binaries by black and other non-white children has received so much attention (and to be clear, I'm glad that it has), why has the opposite received so little? Why has the common white development of an equally unwarranted sense of superiority received so little attention? Why is that so rarely even recognized in the first place for being what it is -- a problem?

I thought about this common white sense of superiority, and about a sort of relative and unwarranted self-confidence that white people often have, when I saw the following segment of "The View," which Jorge Rivas posted at RaceWire. Vanessa Williams is in this clip, and as Rivas points out, she begins by explaining to three nice white ladies what amounts to the White Knight (or Savior) Syndrome, as exemplified by The Blind Side.

[Sorry if a commercial comes up first in the clip. In case anyone can't view this segment and would like to know what these nice white ladies had to say about racism (and the supposed lack thereof) in the movies, I put the transcript in the comments.]

Barbara Walters quickly takes offense at Williams' critique of the movie and cuts her off; then Walters launches into a defense of the film, and the other nice white ladies chime in loudly with their passionate opinions about what is and isn't right in terms of race. And for three minutes, Vanessa Williams -- who may well have better insights to offer on this topic -- for three whole minutes, the probable superior commentator on race here is left twisting in a mostly stale, white wind.

In other words, it is true that the content of what Walters, Behar, and Hasselbeck are saying here differs, and it's also true that Joy Behar actually goes on to elaborate fairly well on what Williams initially said. However, what I see all three of these women displaying, right in the face of a silenced black person who may well know more about these matters than they do, is an overbearing and unwarranted sense of self-confidence. I think they're enacting, probably without realizing it, not only a common center-staging tendency, but also a common white presumption of superiority.

These three nice white ladies seem to think they know what's what on the topic of racism (in this case, Hollywood racism). Like a lot of white people that I know, when they discuss racism, they apparently feel completely confident in what they're saying -- part of that behavior seems to be an understanding that they're supposed to act confident in what they're saying.

However, these nice white ladies don't seem to realize at all the opportunity that they've lost -- to encourage Vanessa Williams to elaborate on what she began to explain, and to listen to her respectfully. Their not doing so exposes them as typically foolish and arrogant white people.

Or so it seems to me. What do you think of the racial staging in this segment from "The View"?

* As some commenters pointed out, this post is too reliant on an insidious black/white racial binary -- it perpetuates that binary. I was led to that reliance by the whiteness-and-blackness of "The View" segment, and of the doll experiments, and I can now see that this post should have been more inclusive of experiences of people of color excluded by that binary. I've edited some parts of the post accordingly, but I think it still doesn't go far enough in addressing racism against other minorities. I apologize for that, and I appreciate reminders on this point from Commie Bastard and R.

** In a series of recent experiments, psychology professor Karen Ruggiero of the University of Texas at Austin and her colleagues demonstrated that stigmatized people attribute their failure to discrimination only when they are certain of that discrimination. People may often avoid making such charges because they fear they have no control over the outcomes, which can be negative and include high costs, financial and emotional.

African Americans may also be reluctant to file suits because they know it will be difficult to prove discrimination.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

fail to understand why non-white people feel like self-segregating

White Americans rarely find themselves in situations where they're more or less surrounded by people of color. In those rare situations where they are, all they usually have to do to get over any racial discomfort is step back out into the "normal" world. Back out into spaces where the majority is made up of people like themselves.

But again, those situations are rare. Partly because most white people spend little or no time in spaces that are mostly non-white, they tend to find it confusing, and even "wrong," for people of color to seek out spaces and situations that are not predominantly white -- to "self-segregate," that is. Because seeking sanctuary from a situation in which you're no longer surrounded by your racial peers could merely mean stepping back into the great (white) norm for whites, it wouldn't seem like racial self-segregation for a white person to do that. Even though that's what it is, and even though white people actually self-segregate almost all the time.

Another possible reason for some of this common white disapproval of people of color who self-segregate is that even if white people do find themselves in a largely non-white space, their sudden racial self-awareness is still going to be different from how racial self-awareness feels for people of color in largely white spaces. That's mainly because both situations exist within a broader context of white predominance, and thus of white power (a form of power that whites tend not to see), and also because most whites just aren't used to feeling "white," to being made to feel aware of their racial status.

Lester K. Spence is an assistant professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University; he also happens to be a black man. In a recent article on his own need to self-segregate at times, Spence writes of a trivial incident on campus that was clearly sparked by a racist white fear of his presence, an incident that quickly elevated to calls for security and the police. Regarding his need for self-segregation, and the kinds of ridiculous and dangerous incidents in whites spaces that can fuel that need, Spence writes,

Predominantly white spaces can be exhausting to navigate. I have to consciously be aware of what I am saying, of who is around me, of what I am wearing, of what I am doing, of what others are saying and doing. In critical ways, I cannot let my guard down for a moment. Because -- and even as I write this I recognize how paranoid this may sound to people unfamiliar with the experiences I refer to -- at any point I may be forced to defend myself, defend my presence.

In stark contrast, when I am at home, or at my wife’s church, or with my fraternity brothers, or at the club listening to house music, I am at home. I am not a statistic. Not a threat. Not an outsider. Not an anomaly. I am safe to “be.” I can be the “representative for the race.” I can be the one black person in the room. But I don’t have to be. . . . I can, in those spaces, breathe.

Of course, whites have long self-segregated into largely white spaces -- residential spaces, employment spaces, educational and recreational spaces, and so on. And there is something about those spaces that makes it easier for them to "breathe." Something white.

However, they rarely see those homogeneous spaces anymore as examples of "self-segregation." Instead, they tend to take the whiteness of those spaces for granted, as something they don't even think about. Those largely white spaces are usually perceived as "normal," not "white." And that makes it easier for whites to overlook how they're racially segregated.

I recently thought about that side of the "self-segregation" coin -- the white side -- when I saw this clip on ABC News. It's a report about Holland, Michigan, a town deemed newsworthy because it was recently declared one of the "happiest" towns in America.

As I watched this clip, I did what I automatically do now with stories about some "American" place -- I counted the people of color. In this piece, I only saw one, a person who looks black, for a second or two.

In this segment, this town seems very, very white. Could that be part of why its residents are so "happy"? What about the people of color living there? Are they as happy as the white residents? If not -- and it does seem very possible that they're not, given the amount of tension that non-white people, especially black people, can feel in such predominantly white environments -- then why not identify the "happiness" of this very white town as a white form of happiness?

Census Bureau statistics reveal that this town of 35,000 is (or was in 2000) about 78% white, 3% black, 4% Asian, 1% Native American, and 14% Other/Mixed. 22% identify as "Hispanic or Latino (of any race)." I wonder why so few of Holland, Michigan's people of color were featured in this ABC segment?

Well, the place is very white. Personally, I find very white places a little creepy now -- I can't forget anymore how they got that way. More to the point, though, I wonder if the people of color in Happy Holland sometimes feel a need to self-segregate. Does the place seem a little too much like Pleasantville to them? Do all those happy white people there make people of color feel a need to, as Lester Spence put it, constantly "keep their guard up"?

Maybe the initial self-segregation that made Holland an especially white town early on -- I'd bet that many of the people of color, or their ancestors, are relatively recent arrivals -- inspires self-segregation now among the people of color. If so, I wouldn't be surprised if the white people of Holland find that confusing. And maybe even wrong, in a nice, friendly place like Holland, Michigan.

What about you? If you're a person of color who spends a lot of time in very white spaces, do you ever feel a need to "self-segregate"? If so, are there particular things that white people do that especially cause that feeling?
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