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White Anti-Racism: No Hairshirt Necessary

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 »

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

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, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Reconsidering Content of Earlier Post Re: Desmond Tutu’s Decoded Genome

It’s such a complex issue! So many questions are raised by the motivations of the research, the scientific results and the media’s reporting of it.

The one thing I am absolutely confident about, is that this research will encourage positive health outcomes for people of African descent in the future. With the addition of Archbishop Tutu and the Bushmen, the human genome project includes 5 of European descent (two of whom are James Watson and Craig Venter– both prominent geneticists), 3 of Asian descent (2 Korean, 1 Chinease) and 3 of African descent (Desmond Tutu, Bushman, Yoruban) plus another three partially decoded Bushman genomes. This distribution is not reflective of the actual percentage breakdown of the global population. VERY importantly, it is not representative of the indigenous populations of the Americas or the Pacific Islands.

Read these for background: 1.  Time– “What Secrets Lie in Archbishop Tutu’s Genome?” 2. Sydney Morning Herald– Cracking an ancient code: Scientist believes Africa can unlock the secrets of disease. (what a headline!) 3. LA Times– Scientists find great genetic differences among southern Africans 4. Newsweek Blog–Desmond Tutu’s Sequenced Genes: How Increased Diversity Helps Doctors Heal

More thoughts to come!

Filed under: Current Events, Journalism, News, Philosophy & Theory, , , , , ,

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 Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Media & Culture, On TV, Personal, Philosophy & Theory, Pop Culture, Society, Uncategorized, , , , , , , , , , ,

Such a perfect re-iteration

Breeze Harper at Sistah Vegan quotes from an essay by Sarah Ahmed who characterizes many Whiteness studies as being “non-performative” in that “they do not do what they say.” Ahmed writes that many of these declarations of whiteness are ‘admissions’ of ‘bad practice’ [which] are taken up as signs of ‘good practice’.

Ahmed’s full paper here at Borderlands

Filed under: Philosophy & Theory, Society, Uncategorized, , , , , ,

M.L.K as Atheists’ Kryptonite

From my perspective as an atheist, I have been dumb-struck and awed by Martin Luther King Jr more than by any other religious leader. I will argue against religious faith when it is clearly used for evil (interesting comments in Coates blog about how Pat Robertson’s various bigotries all stem from his religious bigotry). I will argue against religious faith when it is employed with benign intentions, but has pernicious effects (take your pick from European colonial motivations, Catholicism’s condemnation of sexuality, contemporary evangelical Christian attempts to ‘straighten’ gays, the list goes on…). I even tend to take issue with–though I do not necessarily argue against–perfectly benign  individuals (some close family members) who seem to be religious primarily for self-satisfying reasons because I think that’s disingenuous and that greater satisfaction could be reached in other ways. Point is, when considering religion and deist beliefs, ESPECIALLY when they are employed unabashedly (as King did) as a means to an end (a very worthy end in this case) I approach skeptically 98% of the time.

The life and invaluable accomplishments of Dr. King leave me in awe and at a complete loss for criticism. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: activism, Personal, Philosophy & Theory, , , , , ,