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White Anti-Racism: No Hairshirt Necessary

Update: “Getting Mad about the N-Word”

I am promoting a comment on the previous post to front page. It’s very worth your while to read the whole thing.
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Here’s what I wonder. And I don’t really care about your stupid ugly neighbors who sound awful, because who cares, they’ll get theirs in 10 years when Goldman Sachs gives them smaller-than-expected bonuses. But what I wonder is, will there be a time, or could there be a context, in which casual use of the N-word (or potentially but probably not some other racial slur) is more indicative (or more likely to be indicative) of stupidity and a general inability to practice or experience empathy than it is indicative of racism? More than with most words, context is crucial to determining the meaning, and therefore the potential racist content, of “the N-word” [henceforth, for ease of conversation, "Taffy"]. Watch how much context matters:

1.Jay-Z, whilst rapping
Basically always fine to say Taffy. Can refer to self or others as Taffy. Almost no one has a problem with this;

2. Paul Mooney, pre-Michael Richards
Basically always makes white people cringe and black people laugh/chuckle in agreement when discussing/saying Taffy;

3. Michael Richards, all contexts
Shouldn’t discuss taffy, salt, candies or any chewy substances whatsoever. [Ed. No further extensions of the metaphor will be included in the below text]

Kramer is obviously racist. His eruption of anger and disdain was truly frightening, and he’s not that good of an actor. Not stupid. Racist. So no direct relationship to my stupid v. racist question. However, I think the reason Paul Mooney decided to eliminate “Taffy” from his vocabulary (which, for those too lazy to click through, was a decision “inspired” by Kramer’s outburst, and represents no small change of habit for Mr. Mooney) has a lot to do with that question.

That said, I’m not actually interested in the facts of why Paul stopped saying “Taffy”. (He has spoken frequently on the subject if you are interested.) (Be interested.) Instead, I’m more interested in speculation. Why would one like Paul Mooney, who has prodigiously used (and defended his use of) “Taffy”, be interested in stopping everyone from ever saying it?. And why was Michael Richards the straw that broke the camel’s back?

I think the answer has a lot to do with math, specifically probability. But before we break out the abacus and answer the riddle, I think it is important to explore how Kramer’s outburst may have differed in meaning from the late night conversations of the deformed neighbors. And since Kramer is old, and the awful neighbors are apparently in school and so likely are young, I’d like to submit the below plausible rough sketch of how “Taffy” might mean different things to people of different generations.

Era 1: QUITE A WHILE AGO MAYBE
The situation is: Most/many/all whites say “taffy” in reference to blacks. The vast majority of whites feel/act as if blacks were inferior (making them white supremacists [a type of racist]).

The racist content of a white’s utterance of “Taffy” in this context is: Ambiguous

Use of the word “Taffy” is not a particularly useful indicator of racism in whites in this context. As all/many/most whites feel superior to blacks, white skin is the most reliable and useful indicator of someone having white supremacist feelings, not their use of any particular word or phrase. As most everything said by whites regarding blacks reveals white supremacist feelings, it is not clear that use of the word “Taffy” by whites would indicate unique or unusually intense racism.

Era 2: LESS LONG AGO AND NOT YET NOW
The situation is: Fewer whites say the word “Taffy” in reference to blacks. Overt expressions of white supremacist feelings are increasingly taboo. Nevertheless, all of society’s cultural capital and all cultural cache remains firmly in white hands, save for a chance casting decision here and there.

Blacks begin to use say “Taffy” in reference to other blacks. This is not taken as indicative of self-loathing.

The racist content of a white utterance of “Taffy” in the context is: Very, obviously, and unsophisticatedly racist

Overt expression of a white supremacist ideology is no longer acceptable in polite company, and use of the word “Taffy” to refer to blacks is no longer a pervasive colloquialism amongst whites. Previously (in QUITE A WHILE AGO MAYBE), it would have been an intentional decision for a white not to use “Taffy” to refer to blacks. Now, however, it usually requires an intentional decision for a white [i[to use the word. Popular culture and the cultural/political elite largely discontinue and frown upon use of the word "Taffy". This is called "political correctness," and is interpreted as censorship by those whites who resent that they are no longer encouraged to publicly communicate white supremacist ideology Many of these whites continue to use the word "Taffy" to refer to blacks whenever they think it safe to do so. Evil and shrewd political operations court this very large subset of whites (concentrated in the South) by repeating boilerplate platitudes
that, in the right context,
silently signal white supremacist sympathies to those whites tuned to hear such messages. With mainstream access denied to those racists who use the word "Taffy," white racists wishing to remain active in public life, or even those simply self-aware enough to care about the impression they make on others, resort to these dog-whistle techniques to communicate in public.

As fewer and fewer whites use the word "Taffy" in any context, use of the word becomes common in many different contexts amongst blacks. The word is reclaimed by blacks in many different contexts as a term of self-identification. This continuing reclamation project will have a profound impact on the future meaning(s) of the word "Taffy." Regarding what "Taffy" means when uttered by a white, the most relevant reclamations will come from black-created media. Particularly influential in the long-term will be the reclamation that emerges from new musical genre pioneered by American blacks. But in the short-term, the effect will be more ambiguous, as most whites will remain very afraid of these particular blacks and their contemporaries.

Finally, we arrive back in...

Era 3: NOW-ISH
Everything seems complicated. Some whites (awful hicks) continue to use the term "Taffy" in a hateful manner when they feel safe to do so. Other whites (especially the ones who "Tweet") will have grown up in a world where much of the cultural elite is black. The popular music that the Tweeting whites (and even many of the awful hicks) listen to is largely rap, a genre invented by blacks that was not immediately co-opted by derivative white artists. Whites are now fans of music that was not (originally) for them or by them.

For the first time in our country, large swaths of white America became interested in the "private" conversations of blacks. And these "private conversations" (in the form of music created by blacks and tailored to a black audience) used the word "Taffy." A lot. In myriad ways, none of which communicated white supremacist ideology. And considering the economic opportunity Tweeting whites presented black musicians, no one had an incentive to enforce the "privacy" of these particular conversations. The "for and by blacks-ness" of the music ends up as a style, not a statement, and certainly not a barrier to consumption.

So now certain whites all of the sudden have a new influence on the context to their relationship to the word "Taffy": enjoyment of a certain (and increasingly pervasive) style of music. Also Chris Rock and Jackie Robinson mattered probably. But anyways, the point is that there is no direct relationship between long-term exposure to Ja-Rule and a progressive/anti-racist/non-racist/moral disposition towards blacks. [If anything, long term exposure to Ja-Rule might cause....no, nevermind, not doing that.]

The upshot is that a group of whites, diverse in its racial ideology, has a common and non-racist new context in which to understand and hear the word “Taffy.” Rap begs to be rapped, so whites are almost induced to saying “Taffy” when singing along to their favorite songs. And when a white listens to a song performed by a black artist that includes the word “Taffy”, is there an obvious moral distinction to be made between:
(a) the listener hearing the word;
(b) uttering the word silently in one’s head;
(c) uttering it out-loud while alone; and
(d) and uttering it out loud in the presence of others?

Others have made a convincing case that, in fact yes, there is a moral distinction to be made there. And I agree with them. Whole-heartedly. But I would say it isn’t an exceptionally obvious moral distinction. Which means that it is the type of moral distinction that stupid people will not make. Not because they are racist, but because they are stupid, and they just generally don’t make difficult and nuanced moral distinctions. They lack the mental capabilities, and they lack the knowledge. They do not know, as the Paul Mooney of my imagination knows, that probability is at play here. Blacks are no longer speaking to an all-black audience, so the more times a black musician or comedian says “Taffy,” the more times it is heard by whites, and the more times it is repeated in whites’ heads, and the more times it is uttered out loud while alone, and the more times it is uttered out loud in the presence of others, and the more likely it is that callous idiots are going to be tossing around “Taffy” casually at 4am, because they are too stupid to understand what their drug-addled wanna-be-cool late-night shouts do to the psyche of a black person who might overhear them (that’s your second chance to listen to the Wale song – take it).

Filed under: Media & Culture, Pop Culture, Society

Getting Mad About the N-Word

My next door neighbors are bad neighbors and gross people. It’s 4am and–not to sound like a cranky old person–but they’ve been keeping me up for a while. (The most recent excerpt might be the most charming: “Yo **cough, burp, cough** I’m totally throwing up exactly what I ate. It’s, like, the whole sandwich!”) They’re college students, so they’re fully entitled to smoke as much pot as they like and get loud. Actually, I’d grant those privileges to anyone…However, their manner of speaking really drives me up a wall.

Not only do they have the absolute dumbest conversations– most are about their most successful instances of cheating or the amount that they drink/smoke– but each is peppered with permutations of the N-word. None of them are black. Though I’d be hard pressed to think of a time when it would be OK for a non-black person to use the word, I think what angers me most about their usage is how casual it is. As far as I can tell, they’re not of the breed of racists who act intentionally on their beliefs. In fact, they’re a rather multicultural bunch and I’d be surprised if anyone of them didn’t make an energetic attempt to deny the obvious racism in their usage of the N-word. After all, they never direct it at actual black people. In fact, I think most of the time they’re referring to themselves. (They’re laughable individuals in a variety of ways) Whether or not they are making a pathetic attempt at irony is irrelevant. Their usage pisses me off because it displays such a lack of both self-awareness and consideration (in the sense of respect, not superficial etiquette) for others.

It may be wrong (and a tad hypocritical) for me to stare down my nose at them for their party noise. BUT, I feel totally justified in my disgust for them because of their audible stupidity and racism.

Filed under: Current Events, Personal, , , ,

On the potential of color talk

“Why you and Ms. Shannon both light-skinned?” asked Alicia (not her real name) last Wednesday. Shannon is one of my employees. I’m white and she’s black. Not only that, I’m about as white as white can be– Irish descent, fair skin that sunburns in minutes, bright blue eyes, dirty blond hair (currently dyed brunette). Shannon has light/medium brown skin and dark brown African American hair. I think some would say she’s light-skinned and others wouldn’t. But, there’s really no need to examine our skin shades further; the point is that while Shannon and I may have any number of things in common, skin color is just not one of them.

—Long post! Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: education, Personal, Philosophy & Theory, Society, , , , , , , , , , , ,

Back!

Hello Readers!
I’m sorry the blog has been dead for a week or two. Over Spring break– last week– I worked super long hours. It was actually rather fun, and a number of thought-provoking things arose at work, home and in the news. Unfortunately, having only 2.5 hours between getting home from work and going to bed, my productivity sank to a woeful 2%. But I’m back! Rejoice! JK. Here goes blogging again!

Filed under: Personal

VERY Important. TOTALLY Irrelevant.

Filed under: awww!, Not Relevent

An Arrest Has Been Made!

An arrest has been made in relation to the Walmart Racism even discussed below.

All things considered, I doubt this incident will become important historically. As stupid and base as I’m sure the speaker is, and as rightfully offended as so many are, I don’t think the impact of this event will be strong or far-reaching. Nonetheless, it’s my moral duty to prolong the bad publicity for Walmart.

Filed under: Current Events, Philadelphia News, , , , ,

Racism at Gloucester County Walmart


Overt indisputable racist intimidation is alleged to have happened at a Gloucester County, NJ Walmart. Obviously this act has not been condoned by the company, but I’m totally fine with hastily (re)judging Walmart’s forest for this tree.

If you aren’t sure about your feelings towards Walmart, give “Walmart:The High Cost of Low Prices” a chance. I wonder if Walmart will aggressively silence this issue like they have charges of sexual discrimination.

Filed under: Current Events, Society, , , , , ,

“Do You Listen to Jimmy Buffet Records?”

“Because if so, you’re white.”

From The Colbert Report Interview with Nell Irvin Painter, 3/17/2010. 4:40/5:10

I’ll venture to say that this is one of the truer race-based assumptions out there. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: On TV, Philosophy & Theory, Pop Culture, , , , , ,

American Conversions to Islam

A week or so ago, I began to write about how converting to Islam sometimes presents African Americans a way to create a more specific non-American ethnicity and/or a way to rebel against the oppressive European Christian society thus further solidifying their identities as black. So, starting from the point that converting to Islam can in someway present black Americans the opportunity to be less a part of white society and therefore more or more distinctly black, what can be said about the unusual case of Jihad Jane?Understandably, many reports of this story have emphasized the idea that our stereotypes of what a terrorist looks like have finally been disproved. But not so many stories have examined Jihad Jane’s whiteness in comparison to other instances of domestic terrorism, as Renee Martin of Ms. Blog does here. As Martin writes:

But when LaRose took the name Jihad Jane–thus identifying herself with Islam, a religion many westerners view as violent despite its core teachings and the behavior of most followers–she disassociated herself from Whiteness. And that made it impossible for commentators to once again apologize for a White American who commits domestic terrorism.

Martin’s thoughts about J Jane and whiteness prompt me to examine how white conversions to Islam compare to black conversions. However, I think it’s unfair to the many white people who convert and do not embark on violent jihads. Also, I’m not sure that I want J Jane’s race to be emphasized more– I think she deserves to be treated as harshly as the others involved in the terrorist plot. While agree with Martin that it’s problematic that American culture views Islam as antithetical to whiteness, I don’t want J Jane to benefit from the insanity explanation given to other white domestic terrorists.

Filed under: News, , , , , , , , ,

Ms Magazine Blog!

Thanks to Ta-Nehisi Coates for quoting Annie Shields’ comments about the Ben Roethlesberger rape charges, and thereby reintroducing me to the stellar feminist media that is Ms. Magazine.

Filed under: Internet/Blogosphere, Media & Culture, , , , ,

Gabourey Sidibe is not a healthy weight.


On Monday Howard Stern said of Gabourey Sidebe, “There’s the most enormous, fat black chick I’ve ever seen. She is enormous. Everyone’s pretending she’s a part of show business and she’s never going to be in another movie[.]” Now, I don’t think it’s necessarily true that she’ll never be in another movie ever again. Apparently she’s cast to be in a Showtime series along side of Zoe Kravitz, and I think that if her performance was as good as everyone says it was, it’s likely that she’ll continue to get roles.

Stern and his co-host Robin took issue with Oprah’s support of Sidebe in the following exchange:

“And Oprah’s lying and saying you’re going to have a brilliant career,” said Robin.
“Oprah’s another liar, a filthy liar,” said Stern. “She’s telling an enormous woman the size of a planet thhttp://sanscilice.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post-new.php?preview=trueat she’s going to have a career.”

Again, I don’t agree that Sidebe’s weight will eliminate her career possibilities. I support Stern’s comments though because I think they shed some much needed realism on the hypocrisy of Oprah’s relentless support for women’s health initiatives and efforts to promote healthy female role models while ‘wooing’ Sidebe. I don’t take issue with Sidebe’s talent or beauty or acting skills in Precious; I take issue with her health. I’m always happy to see models and actresses surpass a size 4 and I think it’s great that the fashion industry is finally acknowledging the real danger of anorexia. However, I’m not convinced that Oprah’s glorification of true obesity promotes a realistic dialogue about bodies. I can’t think of another American woman who has done more to promote weight loss and health than Oprah so I’m surprised that she has not been more up front about the role that Sibede’s weight has played in her rise to stardom.

Filed under: Current Events, Journalism, Movies, Pop Culture, , , ,

Feminism in Black American Islam: Intro

Engaged Surrender: African American Women and Islam

I’m currently reading Engaged Surrender: African American Women and Islam by Carolyn Moxley Rouse. I highly recommend it. Everything I had learned about Islam from grade school through college was situated in one of three very distinct settings: the Middle Ages, romanticized portrayals of the Black Nationalist movement, or the United States’ current war with the Middle East. Because of this, my understanding of the religion was neither cohesive nor flexible. Not only has this book taught me more about the “praxis” (in the Marxist sense as the conscious practice of belief or “synthesis of mental and manual labor”) of Islam in a context relevant to my own life, it has reinvigorated and broadened my engagement with feminism. I want to learn more about African American Islam because of its prevalence within the school where I work. As I learn I’ll post new thoughts on the subject. The next books I plan on reading are Black Routes to Islam edited by Manning Marabel and Hishaam Aidi, and Islam and Blackamerican by Sherman Jackson.

Though I’m sure that most of the families in my school are Christian (either in faith or culture), Islam is a very visible part of the community. It is literally visible, in that many of the kids’ mothers wear hijab and/or niqaab, some girls wear hijab and some fathers wear kurtas or dishadashas. I think that those in the community who practice Qu’ranic dress are practicing Sunni Muslims, although I’m not totally sure. I also have the sense that, especially in the realm of clothing, different individuals feel free to apply Qu’ranic advice as they see fit. For instance, I know one mother who wears a hijab but her daughter does not, and another mother who wears a long curly hairstyle but whose daughter wears a hijab.

5 out of the 40 kids I work with have at least one practicing Muslim parent. While I would be surprised if more than 20% of the school’s families are Muslim, the secular/cultural manifestations of Islam are far more prevalent and point to a great variety of degrees to which families are influenced by Muslim culture. 9 out of the 15 boys and 8 of the 25 girls I work with have first names that are etymologically Arabic or Aramaic with European last names. There are also some students in the school who have Arabic first and last names, some of whom I believe are practicing Muslims and others not. The religious lifestyle is even manifest in a secular form; “no pork” is by far the most frequently listed dietary restriction. I bet it is listed on 1/3 of our students’ medical forms.

A few years ago I encountered the idea that for some African Americans, converting to Islam presents an opportunity to adopt an ethnicity or ethnic culture distinct from mainstream African American culture. I’m sure that the religion appeals to converters for a variety of reasons, but Islam–as a religion and way of life– may have special appeal to blacks who seek to differentiate their personal history and identity from the African American identity which has been significantly influenced by white oppression. The trauma of slavery and the ensuing centuries of familial instability have made it incredibly difficult for many blacks to trace their geneology back to a city or country like most white Americans are able to do. And, although there are many sources of pride within the African American culture and history, I have sensed and heard that this culture and history can also be a source of shame. Though I do not blame the problems ascribed uniquely to the black American community, writ large, on individuals’ apathy or moral failures, I can understand why some blacks disavow the culture which produces the individuals who add to negative stereotypes.

Black people searching for a more specific personal history and/or new cultural identity may find conversion to Islam appealing as it can address both concerns. The US is skeptical and fearful of Islam. To most of America–even liberals– Islam is decidedly “Other.” Americans associate it with a totally different part of the world and frequently assume that, as a religion, it is in stark opposition to the “uniquely” Christian values on which the country was supposedly founded. These differences– real or perceived–make conversion to Islam much more than a change in faith or a spiritual re-awakening; the conversion becomes a process whereby one can choose to identify with a part and ethnically and culturally different part of the world while also eschewing the system of values which was imprecated in the construction of the country which racially oppressed black people for centuries.

By thinking about African American Islam in this way, I became more sympathetic to conversion as a legitimate and authentic act of individual agency whereas previously I had only thought about blacks’ conversion to Islam as a largely political statement following the Nationalist movement. Clearly, at that point I knew very little about Islam in America. Even after becoming comfortable with conversion as potentially empowering to the individual who chooses it, I still viewed such a conversion as lamentable (especially for women) and detrimental to feminism much in the same way I lament the existence of conservative feminism; I was glad that women were at least consciously asserting their identities and grappling with the meaning of womanhood (maybe they’ll come around!) but was not in support of breathing new life into traditional gender roles. Conservative Feminism, whose female supporters strive to be exemplars of the subordinate yet (re)productive American housewife, remains anathema to me because I am not convinced by its members’ desire for women’s empowerment (which I believe is the one definite goal of all feminisms) and am disgusted by the way their proud servility feeds (literally and figuratively) white male capitalism.

Reading Rouse’s Engaged Surrender has completely changed my view of black women’s conversion to Islam. Although there are still some gender-related limitations which I think are morally wrong (homophobia in particular) I am very much in favor of the inherently feminist discourse which naturally emerges from the African American Sunni Muslim community. And, now that I have a better idea of the praxis of Sunni Muslims, I believe that feminist praxis has great potential to improve its local community and perhaps the black American community at large. In the next few posts in this thread I intend to examine the feminist discourses and attitudes facilitated by Islam as they have been written about by Rouse. I also intend to deal with other examinations of black Islam in different contexts. I am particularly interested to learn about the experience of black Muslims who were born into the religion and its way of life, as opposed to choosing it as an act of independence.

Please note that, as white atheist or not, I do NOT intend my attitude toward and individual understanding of African American Sunni Islam to be seen as advice to group of which I am not a part to convert to a religion of which I am not a part. Instead, I am working to understand how women in different communities create different routes to empowerment. Though some strains of feminism resonate more strongly with me personally, I believe that the development of a greater variety of effective feminisms will result in a greater variety of empowered women. I do not envision utopias, but I see no logical reason to disbelieve that if one half of our population is granted the same respect, support and validity as the other, much less distrust will hinder our progress and vastly more capable individuals will contribute to the greater good.

Filed under: education, Personal, Philosophy & Theory, Society, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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