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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).

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Filed under: Media & Culture, Pop Culture, Society

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

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, , , , , ,

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.

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Good Hair

I just watched  Chris Rock’s documentary Good Hair.

Rock does a good job of exploring the aspects of black women’s hair choices that he finds problematic, especially the fact that most black American women’s styles emulate European hair. The meme that black styles emulate white hair has a legitimately problematic history. The racially fraught nature of the ‘straighter is better’ meme becomes more apparent when partnered with the colorist meme that blacks with lighter skin are more beautiful). At one point in the movie, a hair-stylist mentions that moms want their young daughters’ hair relaxed because its unmanageable. I’ve heard this defense before and it usually strikes me as disingenuous. Thinking about my own hair though, I think the manageability issue has a degree of salience.

I have super thick, coarse, curly, frizzy dark blond hair. It’s not nappy like black hair, but– to give you a sense of how far away it is from being straight and silky– if I brush out my hair (styled in a bob) it will stand on end in what can best be described as a Euro Afro. I’ve always worn my hair curly. I blow dry and iron it straight two or three times a year, but I’ve never had it chemically straightened and am sure that I never will. Though I think my curly hair is beautiful (even gorgeous!) when I wash, dry and style it properly, sleeping on it transforms it into crazy-person hair. It really annoys me that I can’t just comb it in order to make it look sane. I’m about 80% Irish, 5% Welsh, 5% English, 5% Dutch and 5% French and I too have occasional dreams of silky straight shiny locks that lay down.

Filed under: Movies, Personal, Society, , , , , , ,

2010 Whiter Olympics

Thanks to Zoe M. for linking to White Snow, Brown Rage: The Case Against the Winter Olympics published on Slate. Aside from figure skating, I’ve never had much interest in any of the winter sports, aside from figure skating. And, while I grant that the requirements of figure skating are no less athletically legitimate than those of other Olympic sports (and probably MORE legitimate than those of Shooting), I have always viewed the sport more as a competition of spectacle as opposes to quantifiable ability.

I’m glad people are speaking out against the intertwined racial/geographical exclusion of the winter games; it is absolutely true that, as Raihan Salam puts it, “brown folks hail from largely snowless, tropical climes.” However, I think the selection of sports for the winter games presents as much of a problem within just the US as it does from a global perspective. I don’t care about most winter sports mostly because my family was never wealthy enough to arrange for such excursions and equipment. Most winter sports don’t just require expensive limited-use equipment; for US citizens father than a few hours by car from snowy mountains such activities require entire vacations! Because of this, I don’t think that the winter games have the same capacity to foster a sense of national pride and togetherness. (It’s pretty rare that I advocate for more nationalism…hm) I don’t know how to prove it— might do more research– but I’m sure that the level of enthusiasm within the US for the winter games is markedly lower than it is for the superior summer ones. Thoughts?

Filed under: Current Events, Personal, Pop Culture, Society, , , , , ,

On appreciating Africa

From Loveisntenough:

Do [you] acknowledge that there is no such thing as one African culture–that the continent is one of many nations and peoples with unique cultures? Do you, for instance, work to teach your son about his Ethiopian heritage rather than “generic Africa?”

Do you recognize modern-day Congolese, South Africans or Kenyans as real, living, breathing and nuanced people?

Earlier I posted about my reluctance to teach pre-schoolers to appreciate Africa as part of Black History Month at my school. I don’t like making generalizations about the continent and I don’t think it’s ok to host a project which makes assumptions about each student’s unique heritage and about their families’ attitude towards that heritage. I think the questions asked in the loveisntenough post address this issue quite well.

Filed under: education, Personal, Society, , , , , , , , ,

“People are Children”

I came across this youtube video on Loveisntenough. What intrigued me most was the difference between the younger kids and the older kids. Some of the little ones do seem to have a vague understanding of the concepts but they don’t seem to connect the concepts to their life experiences. The older kids however seem to understand race and racism solely in terms of their life particular experiences. I’m sure this has something to do with the editorial decisions, but I would still like to think more about how and when we begin to internalize the problems of race.

Filed under: education, Society, , ,

Early College for Students at Risk

SandHoke Early College High School admits only students whose parents do not hold college degrees, and provides them with the opportunity to earn their diploma and two years of college credit for free!

So neat! We need more programs like this. Obama has pushed for student loan reform and has already significantly increased the maximum Pell grant. However, attending a sufficiently rigorous school is still a risky financial decision for most low to middle income students because lenders continue their predatory practices. (Kudos to Stanford for eliminating tuition for all students whose families makes under 100K!) The educational options of poorer students are narrowed even further by the fact that more and more private colleges are eliminating their ‘full-need’ financial aid policies which make it possible for any admitted student to attend regardless of their financial needs.

Filed under: activism, News, Society, , , , ,

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, , , , , , , , , , ,

A striking piece of reflection

From a guest contributor on Racialicious— a self examination of male identity, race and disability. Powerfully written and startling.

self exposure

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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

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