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White Anti-Racism: No Hairshirt Necessary

a great conversation

Just had a really productive transAtlantic g-chat conversation today with a friend living in Paris, whom I have dubbed Paris.
It’s a good follow up of previous posts about whites exploring race in a public setting, and about different attitudes towards white guilt, black comedy and discursive reappropriation in art. This part of the conversation was prompted by my earlier post about John Mayer.
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Paris: i just dont really get why it kind of seems like [Mayer] gets away with stuff like that likes it charming or cool
me: ya, i don’t get it either. but, i guess he’s not really getting away with it
he’s had two ridiculous interviews and tabloids have gone nuts
fortunately i think he’s beginning to realize that he needs to shut up. his apology for using the n-word is better than many publicity-focused apologies about such things
also, have you seen Chris Rock’s Kill?
if not you must.
100% pure genius.
Paris: yes! athena and i actually watched it the other night
we were crying laughing
me: ah! so fun!I think I’d enjoy watching it like once a month
Paris: i started writing something about bamboozled
so i was watching it. but then i got all tangled up and confused and had to leave it. this was like, last week, but maybe ill give it another crack this week
me: what drew you in?
— i haven’t seen it
Paris: oh gosh! you should rent it
im not sure actually how it got started. i think because athena and i were talking about dave chappelle?
me: cool- i will. i haven’t read very good reviews, but i imagine it’s interesting regardlesss
Paris: i have no idea exactly how it got to bamboozled.
me: wow– haven’t thought about him in a while!
what happened to him. i guess his show had an expiration date. oh right–he went crazy too.
Paris: he did, yes. but i guess we got from dave chapelle to bamboozled bc we were talking about what it is for white people to like, participate in black comedy and what kind of issues it does or does not bring up
me: i think the most common experience for whites watching black comedy is catharsis. there are so many race issues big and small that white people experience and think about but have dificulty communicating out loud
because to do so is to admit one’s whiteness, and admission which for many ppl is associated with guilt
so it is relieving (among other things) for whites to hear black people articulate it
Paris: yes, i think you’re right. i think it gets difficult with satire, though. because satire can be dangerous, right, in that it can be reifying as opposed to critical if taken the “wrong way”
i dont know, for me i have all these questions about how ownership of terms works in cultural production
like, is some art only for certain audiences?
me: yes, but then it’s not good satire
if it’s not a complete takedown, i think it’s unsuccessfull. [I also think that if comedy or subversive film is only for certain particularly informed audiences it gains cult following and veers into the category of camp.]
Paris: but what about like (and i guess this isn’t exactly comedy) for example, kara walker or even, if we’re on more solely feminist lines as opposed to racial ones, lisa yuskavage?
both are artists who are often using the language of oppression
or, use forms that were/are/could be used oppressively
In some ways kara walkers work is satirical, i think. but i guess im not entirely comfortable with/dont know what to do with, the kind of rorschach test aspect of it[.] Depending on what you seen, is something revealed about your biases? or maybe that is what is kind of brilliant about it? im not sure
me: hmmm. so, i don’t think comedy and art need to be addressed simultaneously. Obviously they have commonalities and are capable of engaging the same issues, but in this context, I don’t think that black satire of America writ large is actually using the language of oppression. I think the nuanced code switching/word play in black language and in black comedy is changing the language and not actually replicating it
Paris: (yes, you are correct–sorry, i got a little jumbled up again thinking about bamboozled, bc it’s about a comedy show on tv that is essentially a minstrel show)
me: whereas i think that Walker’s art, for example, is reproducing the language but to a non-standard and effectively critical end….
no it’s interesting to think about
oooo! i just read your mention of walker’s work interpreted as a rorschach test. such a good point!
i think that is definitely something that is shared between comedy and art.
but i don’t think comedy makes people feel bad about things they don’t already carry guilt about
(i guess that is exactly the point of a rorschach though. and comedy’s aims are more upfront)
i’m trying to think in terms of more identifiable instances and I actually can’t think of a case of black comedy that has made me feel bad. White comedy about race on the other hand, has a ton of potential to make me and other whites feel badly [as I discussed here]
Paris: right–although i wonder, aren’t some things funny/laughable because they are uncomfortable? but i guess that doesn’t negate your point about guilt though
me: yes, the points can co-exist. but also, i think that discomfort is a huge part of all comedy
also, you can feel uncomfortable without feeling guilty
like when you laugh watching someone fall down the stairs, it’s totally uncomfortable, but there’s no reason to feel guilty about what happened, especially if you couldn’t have prevented it
Paris: yeah i think you’re right. i think what i find so…admirable is not the right word…but something…about your blog is that actually i do struggle with a lot of the guilt, and kind of general fear (?) that you’re arguing not against per se, but you know what i mean?
It’s interesting because most of my academic work is about race, or at least it in the case of the mutter museum, it’s about marginalization that is written on and through the body
me: ya, I’m definitely not “against” [white guilt and fear]– like it makes complete sense
Paris: totally, but as you make quite clear, it’s super insidious, and quite limiting
me: well–i think i should make this clearer on the blog at some point– i think that white guilt/discomfort IS an integral part of coming to a full recognition of racism and can be very motivating against racism.
my problem is only with those who excuse themselves from the problem by pretending that because they recognize their privilege they no longer take part in it
Paris: it’s intersting though, because i take a real issue with this general kind of “who is a secret racist” witch hunt that goes on in the US, because im not sure that that is really how racism works–like, its way more systematic and macro then that person is a racist therefore we hate him
me: absolutely. i think that sort of knee jerk reaction distorts a lot of legitimate engagement with racism for purely politcial ends.
Paris: but, you also advocate for looking at the micro, and tackling racism on the ground—which is so important, but there’s a way in which those things are in tension? even though theyre not?
me: no, i don’t think they’re in conflict at all, and I think the assumption that they’re not related is actually a large factor in preventing progress
like, when you recognize the effects of racism on a small interpersonal practical level, you are presented with an opportunity to address the larger issues
like, if racist hatred and it’s horrible history on a grand systemic scale didn’t have such lasting and pervasive effects it wouldn’t be a problem. an analogy i guess, is that I wouldn’t care if someone I don’t know secretly hates me as long as their attitude doesn’t make my life any worse
Paris: right, of course.
me: back to your earlier mention of your own struggle with guilt/fear tho
it’s something i want to explore more in my own self.  i rarely experience straight up white guilt (tho i definitely used to growing up), but i definitely still experience race-prompted fear on a regular basis
Paris: yes
me: (that is related to guilt, but in a more tangential way)
like, for instance, i wait for the bus for 20 minutes on a pretty rough corner while it’s dark out. and it’s difficult for me to distinguish whether a particular wave of fear in response to a passing black man is brought on more because of his race, or more because it’s dark and he’s a big guy and i’m alone on a historically rough corner down the block from active dealing corners.
Paris: or some combination of the two
me: yes, that is most likely
but then at the same time, when i think more ‘objectively’ about the situation, i realize that it’s actually to my benefit that i am white in this context because no black man in his right mind is going to harm a white woman for no reason b/c of fear of the police system. i could certainly be mugged, but i think more serious assualts are pretty unlikely.
Paris: right of course. its funny where it crops up for people though–like for me i think less about that kind of fear (which is maybe not a great thing)
me: haha
Paris: but i guess i think, if im alone and its dark, and im in a not great neighborhood and i get nervous, well then i get nervous and yes there are probably strands of prejudice there but im nervous so thats what it is? where i experience the most racism-related anxiety (if that doesnt sound too victimizing, i just didnt know how else to put it) is when sometimes i will be completely paralyzed say, in a classroom where we are having a discussion about race, because somehow i feel like if i speak up, or ask a certain question, ill inadvertently say something racist??? im not sure where that fear comes from, but its definitely palpable
me: i know certainly know what your’e talking about– i think it’s a feeling experienced by all people in interacial conversations about race. i actually think i’ve sort of moved passed that (sry for how self congradulatory that sounds) after
Paris: no no you have! i think that’s why i think you’re so brave!
me: taking a chance in speaking up enough times to realize that i personally feel much more comfortable speaking my mind in those scenarios than i do censoring myself
Paris: also cause i think if peope felt more free to ask questions, and to speak candidly, there would be much greater opportunity for understanding
me: ah! I hit on it! For me, it feels better to talk because when i hold my tongue I feel like I’m sending a message that the issue at hand is not relevant to me and that i don’t really care enough to have anything to say about it
and I do care!
Paris: yes, and it’s that thing about invisibility too, right?? like somehow NOT asking the questions, or just sort of passively agreeing, actually serves to reinforce this issue of white invisibility or untouchability
me: my whiteness might eliminate any possibility of ‘street cred’ or credibility as a performer of black culture, but it doesn’t eliminate my credibility as a person who is a certain race and who has thoughtfully experienced a raced society and has been bothered by it
yes, exactly– i think though that what you are talking about here is more white ignorance (as a willfull lack of knowledge) than it is invisibility. like, in those interracial race-focused situations, i think white people (all people really) feel very visibile in terms of their race
Paris: ah yes, i see what you mean
so actually im going to send you a book, but do you mind if i send you a used copy?
The end!
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Filed under: Media & Culture, On TV, Personal, Philosophy & Theory, Pop Culture, Society, Uncategorized, , , , , , , , , , ,

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