Thursday, December 10, 2009

Race in America: J's Manties in a Bunch, responding to D

This post responds to a post by J-Fave Daktari here.

Wherein I kind of lose it a little bit, and hope that it's still clear that I hold D in the utmost regard, it's just an issue that got my goat, and then got my goat's panties in a bunch. --J

Wow. I'm kind of surprised to read this from you at this point, D. Sooooo many things. I agree with you that Carmen VK's racial identification is imprecise, but racial identification is by nature (as you point out) imprecise. Many, many countries have considered themselves to be races unto themselves, and they can't be said to be wrong any more than they're right.

"There have been times when I have thought that these shifting ideas about what to call POC was merely a way to prevent white Americans from having any sort of voice in the race discussion. As long as you can shout down the majority group by making them feel prejudiced for daring to open their mouths, you own the direction and tenor of the discussion. Bad form, I say."

My jaw HIT the floor here. Let us say, at best, I think you over-estimate the extent to which "People of Color" think/care about what the majority does. That is, while "proper" identity terms have been at times used quite certainly to make others feel prejudiced, I would basically scream out loud that that is not why they were developed. They were developed, in my educated amateur-ish opinion, because after black Americans finally got a fucking VOTE in what we would be called by majority culture, which was only 40+ years ago, we had and have trouble figuring out what it should be. It shifts constantly as we try to find our identity constantly, and debate what we want to emphasize, own, spurn, celebrate, face up to in terms of the willy-nilly thing that is "black culture" in the US. Race, and culture, are impossible to precisely define, but I would definitely say there is a "pole" around which the African-American/black culture centers, and a "pole" for majoritarian culture, primarily the culture of those who don't necessarily have to give explicit thought to race. (There are of course many other poles, especially for the other large racial minorities, but let's confine ourselves for the moment.) That is to say, and I'm trying not to be shrill here, but honey, the terms black, Negro, Colored, African American, Afro-American, Black-American and others are not about you. We're not shifting around to annoy you (the bulk you--majoritarian culture), we're shifting around because we want a term that will do the impossible.

Let me give you a brief parallel: so, I work on food. I recently listened to a talk by the fantastic manager of the Toronto Food Policy Council, Wayne Roberts. He pointed out that the term "food security" lacked an immediacy and confused people, especially post-9/11. The accepted definition of food security is something like "access by all people at all times to enough and appropriate food for a healthy and active lifestyle", but post-9/11 people think more in terms of "secure from attack." Hunger and malnutrition are neither sufficient because they don't inherently entail the issue of access (the prevalent, by far, cause of hunger/malnutrition/food insecurity); food sovereignty is a growing term but lacks common currency in the Global North, over-emphasizes an ideal of the nation-state, isn't clear as to what group is the appropriate unit of "sovereignty", etc. Similar problems evolve from "food democracy." All this is to say, there is no one term that can encompass what we need to encompass within food justice circles. We can't all agree, and the terms in favor shift all the time. We're not doing this, certainly, to keep people from understanding or speaking about food. We're doing it because it's impossible to have the "one right term." The same is true, if not more so, for terms for racial groups.

Then you go into the "we're all human" and "we're all mixed race" and "we're all out of Africa." Well, those things are all true, but the years of research debunking a deep biological meaning for race simply mean that its primary importance and meaning comes from the social. And just because something is socially defined doesn't mean it's not real, it's just different in kind than a strict biophysical property. "Race" is a social construct; but then so are the identities "Christian", "Hindu", "Atheist" "Agnostic" "Democrat" "Republican" "Anarchist" "Bat-shit Crazy Follower of Ayn Rand's Fucked Up Ideas." Yet we'd never argue that "there's no such thing as Christians", or "look, all religious beliefs and lack thereof originate from humanity's inability to know and understand everything; I'm going to say we're ALL agnostic because all faith or conviction against faith hinges on the problem of 'a-gnostia' (the word I think I just made up meaning "a state of not-knowing")".

I mean, yes, of course it's important for us to emphasize, identify with, realize and cherish our shared humanity. And race is not all-defining and should not be; even under slavery, race was not *all* that a human being was, master or slave (though it did determine, if you were a slave, nearly all of how you would be seen by others one could argue). The fact that we share a common ancestor is relatively immaterial to all this, because as you imply the biology of it all is a red herring.

By debunking the red herring, you haven't really said much about the actual import of the situation I'm afraid. Tiger's deal is a complicated one, and the race aspect originates in a combination of internalization/indoctrination and earlier solidarity. That is, the rules under slavery were "one drop of black blood makes you black". Impossible to enforce in real life, of course, but certainly true in terms of if a black ancestor could be reasonably identified for you, you were automatically not white. If you were fair-skinned and, say, had some kind of social status, and it wasn't your father or mother but perhaps grand or great-grand that was black, you might hold onto not being a slave or total second-class citizen. But first class was closed to you.

Well, a couple hundred years of that attitude, and African Americans/black (which I use interchangeably for blacks within the US) internalized a lot of it. Self-policing means that if you have, let us say, "some drops", and (primarily these days) some subset of typically black phenotypes, you are considered "black." There is/has been a lot of push-back from mixed race people, but let us remember that openly mixed-race kids has only stopped being of some significant degree of social note in your own lifetime, I'd think.[Addition: Outside of this internalization, "claiming" mixed race individuals as black was in part solidarity and strategy, I think, as also until relatively recently, being identifiably mixed race was almost as much of a problem/stigma as being black. So mixed race children were forced to live the social experience of their black parents to some extent, both while they were raised and to an extent as adults I would think; identifying as black was a statement of solidarity, and a strategy in coalition-building to fight all racial prejudice. Beyond that, claiming mixed race people as "black" allowed blacks to point to many successful African Americans as role models and counter-examples for our supposed inferiority. But many, many of the early successful African Americans were mixed -- their success came in part from either "passing" as white, or from advantages gained from, say, a white father who supported his mixed-race kids with one of his slaves. But once they had achieved great things, through either mechanism, it was useful and quite sensical to say, both for the sake of our own role models and to "prove" something to majority culture -- "See! You see! Black people CAN do that; we ARE as smart, as capable! Your own standards say one drop of black blood makes you black; well look at him/her! Black, powerful and proud!" The rhetorical usefulness of this quite drops if you start talking about mixed race explicitly, beyond which, since race *is* more social than biological, it makes perfect sense in that atmosphere to claim mixed-race people, who would've been equally discriminated against where they could be identified, as black. Since it's socially constructed, they were black, because they were treated as such.-end Addition]

As far as "I read a recent blog post on Feministing wherein people say that if a minority calls me an epithet, it's just being rude, but if I call a minority an epithet, it's a hate crime, I wonder how f*#@'d up our ideas about race have really become", I thought we'd already had this conversation. But in any case, something well reflecting of my opinion of this is here and I address it directly here. I'm heavily indebted to this essay by Stanley Fish. I disagree with much in the article, but not with the overall point here: "The hostility of the other group is the result of [racist] actions, and whereas hostility and racial anger are unhappy facts wherever they are found, a distinction must surely be made between the ideological hostility of the oppressors and the experience-based hostility of those who have been oppressed." The details of this formulation may be more arguable in a world where oppression is more subtle, but its substantial truth, I think, remains.

It seems to me your panties got rightly in a knot over some of the foolishness around Tiger. That foolishness, however, doesn't invalidate all race, just as the East Anglia data set debacle doesn't invalidate Global Climate Change. We may be much closer to a world where "Money and fame make everyone colorblind", but we are not there. Money and fame makes a lot appear colorblind, and we are perhaps closer to that than the world of the joke
Ques: "What do you call a black, Harvard-educated bank president?"
Ans: "A nigger";
but we are no more wholly in the wealth & fame colorblind world than we are wholly in the one of the joke.


Daktari said...

Dude, quit stealing my traffic. Get my response here.

Daktari said...

Let's try this again.

For my response, go here.

B said...

Can I agree with both of you a little? I think that changing of terms/monikers/whathaveyou is certainly useful and probably helpful, in the search for a term that both fits and is not offensive. This will always happen, and should, especially so that people get to choose for themselves what they are called.
A minor point: There is the problem with the term African American that some black Americans are of Caribbean (or other non-African) descent.
However, like D, I think that the majority can feel off-balance when trying to figure out which appellation is now the "right" one, and which will be misconstrued as racist. Certainly, we might be racist, if unconsciously, but we don't mean to be. It's frustrating to feel like we can't ever know what the right term is or "get out from under" the possibility that we are racist.
Speaking of racism, what's up with the weird racial undercurrents in Avatar?

J said...

"Speaking of racism, what's up with the weird racial undercurrents in Avatar?"
Hah. Don't know, B. I've been in a long conversation about this on Facebook.

I have heard the problem of some black Americans being not, strictly, African Americans -- including first-generation African immigrants or of Caribbean descent. This is an area that I, too, find myself somewhat off-footed, because, especially in terms of Caribbean Americans, it seems that their racial experience would fit under the general rubric. That is, the Caribbean has suffered from imperialism and discrimination, although on many of those islands, it wasn't from a white majority living on the island itself. And African immigrants in the US don't have the US African American legacy of slavery, so I do see the difference there (which is, I forgot to add, another way in which Caribbean American seems to fit African American-the legacy of slavery), so I see how then the terms and identification gets much more confused. Of course, there will never be a term that perfectly encompasses everyone it "should" and doesn't imply anything about anyone else, rather parallel to the fact that there is no such thing as 100% security, and certainly there isn't without wicked unintended effects.

This why perhaps I find it useful to distinguish between African American, which I see as multi-generational black Americans, and blacks, who can be of any national origin. And I don't see what in the world D's problem with calling this "race" is, as race has never made perfect (or sometimes any) biological sense, and its intuitive meaning maps well enough onto these definitions of African American and black as far as I'm concerned. If one wishes to call them oogedy-boogedy, I suppose that's fine, but I don't have a problem with calling it race, and with the author on Racialicious "incorrectly" identifying her race with national origin, which was the point of contention that kind of started this whole thing. Language is anything if not flexible, and the "correct" meanings of things are often not what we think they are (one of the reasons I love Language Log; often that word does not mean what we think it means). People have used "race" for nationality before and shall again; I can't say if that's historically accurate, but I'm unbothered by its use and in/accuracy in Racialicious really (though I didn't read the original post and may have to retract that).

Daktari said...

I will agree to leave this one alone in hopes that you can I can one day have that long discussion, and do our bitching and moaning over black and tans. However, before I do, I wish to clarify what I feel was a major miscommunication between us in this series of posts. I hope you know that I hold you in the highest regard. (I was telling my mother about you while I was home visiting and I told her that if anyone could help solve world hunger, you were the guy.) So don't be all thinking I take you for granted or don't respect your opinion or any of that other kind of shit. You are among my top three favorite people and if you consider that I'm one of them, I'm not sleeping with you, and we've never met, by cracky that's saying something. So when THAT guy is disappointed in me, I'm sure as shit interested in finding out why. My point being, I think I did not understand in your first response what it was about my comments that disappointed you. I do now. Or at least I think I do. And I will concede that I took the easy way out in that first post (rehashing the Racilicious thing that STILL gets my goat), but I never meant to suggest that the whole (or even most) community of color isn't interested in my thoughts and efforts. I never assumed that you were trying to shut down discourse, and I think therein lies our great miscommunication, although I did misread the tenor of your response.

I'm still not sure why my comments elicited SUCH a strong response from you. You are just going to have to chalk it up to my inexperience. I still maintain that nationality is not race. So we disagree. No big whoop. However, I think I "get" a lot more than your disappointment would suggest, and I do occasionally :/ get my panties in a knot when someone tells me that I have to pay for sins that I actually am busting my ass to set right. I am working to understand the issues, working to correct the things I can...just working because it is the right thing to do. It's a learning curve and maybe I was being a total shit, but Hey! Every now and again, I say you get a pass. Look at the alternative. I could shrug my shoulders walk away from the problem.

So, in a nutshell, I agree that white opinion shouldn't shape black self-identity--that I have no business REALLY commenting on what people want to be called--I just find it amusing when people do things that don't make sense to me. BUT, when people are talking about black-white relations, I sure as shit DO think that white people should have a voice. When the field makes broad-stroke assumptions about white folks (not just "Rethugs" or "Dumb-o-crats") that are both wrong and offensive, I should have a voice. I should be able to use those opportunities to talk about a white opinion outside the stereotype. You asked if I had commented on his blog and yes I have, but he has never once responded to my points. In fact, his commenters regularly ignore anything I have to say. Either I'm not interesting or I'm actively being ignored or no one gives a shit about the logic I present. Who's to say?

I am disappointed, albeit not as disappointed as you, that you didn't seem to get the point of my follow-up post (or if you did, other points seemed to have taken precedence): that I am anxious to try to help get our common life experience to that place where we don't have to worry about who's majority and who's minority and why can't someone, somewhere tap into that desire and help me help.

With that, I lay this series to rest. I look forward to what I hope is my last first date this New Year's Eve and many more provocative, interesting, enjoyable, thought-provoking, and downright fun discussions with you in the new year.

#1 on my resolution list is this: I resolve to share that beer with J in 2010.


J said...

Heh. Well, your final point is a good one: "help get our common life experience to that place where we don't have to worry about who's majority and who's minority and why can't someone, somewhere tap into that desire and help me help." I will say, though, that given the locations you've lived, it's not *too* surprising that you haven't found many to help you help, and as far as field, I don't know what the hell is up with that, because your incisive wit and decisive insight is always worth responding to, even (or perhaps especially) when it's something you're still feeling out or not totally sure of (or totally sure of but also somewhat totally in disagreement with me or field over some point ;p

But looking for allies on the interblogs is always dicey (cf. your experiences at Pharyngula, a wretched hive of scientific scum and villainy among many of the commenters), and I maintain that the *feeling* that your desire to help isn't appreciated isn't necessarily the *reality* that it isn't. Or at least, not reality in general, though it may be on the blogs and places you frequent and live. Like I said, in my experiences at Michigan (I think I said this), I was a go-between for my black friends from Detroit who had never been in a majority white classroom, and my white friends from everywhere else that hadn't had small group projects with black folks before. Though there was plenty of room for disaster, most of my friends learned a lot and built bridges and all that kumbaya shit. And the white people with further interest in race, in helping out--well, engineers aren't interested in that. But they're plenty welcome in the halls of UM Ecology and SNRE within the groups I moved and shook with.

As far as my disappointment, which I will leave to the dustbins of yesterweek, it was precisely because I think/feel/know that you "get" a whole heckuva a lot that I felt "disappointment", because many of the points you raise are, frankly, points that have raised with me by many, many less informed and insightful white folks. As I think I said before, maybe it's unfair to lump the surface similarities together, but nonetheless, there was a disjunction between your complaints and my estimation of your insight and "get"-ingness. So I suspect you're right and there's some misunderstanding, because I'm fully sure you understand quite a bit. The fact that it seemed to me like your points fit into a less enlightened worldview is surely just that miscommunication you referred to, because I also hold you in the highest regard and wish we had "a hundred more like you", or like you at least insofar as they matched your passion, depth, genuineness, and fantastic drollness mixed with fantastic balls-out willingness (eagerness!) to face things head on.

I of course also desire somewhere where we don't have to worry about who's majority and who's not, though I suppose I usually wouldn't put it that way because there will always be the history that led us to today, even if/when today=substantively just and equal world, and we should always worry about it in that we learn about it and we maintain the stories and the good elements of the cultures and peoples we came from, even as we forge, mix and match new cultures and new peoples. But that's probably just my normally more wordy way to agree with something someone else said.

And yes. 2010: Drink on.