Monday, July 21, 2008

'responsibility' has more than one face

Hip Hop Leaders: Jesse Jackson’s Time Up | RaceWire

Two things:
1 - This is the reason why Season 1 of the Real World was the shit and they should have stopped there: Kevin Powell is running for Congress!

2 - I wonder if Powell and Nas, as the 'new' faces of black activism/accountability, are what folks think of when they deflect the conversation away from white privilege with 'when are black people going to start taking responsibility' waah waah waah whine whine whine?

Meaning, I think folks have a different picture in mind when they start saying, before we start unpacking white privilege, black folks should get their act together. (See Bill Cosby, whose talks about what's affecting various black communities never addresses structural issues.)

When they say 'get their act together' what are they talking about?

In my opinion, I think they're talking about conformity to a bourgeois/middle class identity. (And, no, I'm not talking about 'talking white.') I'm talking about the not so subtle codes that comprise middle class ideology: heterosexual normativity, 'bootstrap'/rampant individualism mythology, appropriate Judeo-Christian religious conformity (without any hint of liberation theology to it, and don't even think about being a part of the Nation), law and order obedience and a firm belief in, and support of, capitalism and its tools.

While middle class ideology has such an unshakeable belief in the Self it forgets that the Self comes handily wrapped in a colored skin. Middle class ideology, unfortunately, assumes we're all white. It is, in fact, built on the premise of white skin privilege and the access that white supremacy can bestow.

Now, turning this lens briefly to myself, I won't say that I, a brown woman, don't faintly resemble what I've just described. However, I am not unaware of niggling and persistent social structures that act as barriers for everyone to achieve the middle class dream. Let's call one such social barrier, oh, INSTITUTIONAL RACISM. If we begin to look at the world through this lens (and it's difficult and burdensome to do so because you start realizing that there is a lot of problematic shit all around you), then you begin to see (white) middle class ideology as a luxurious myth that's available to some people but not really to all, despite whatever aspiration they might have toward it.

I'm wandering a little. Let me go back to the RaceWire post, showing two very different young black men addressing black political identity and agency in different ways. Actually, there are 3 black men here:

Kevin Powell, Gen X writer, activist and candidate for public office. He is progressive, inclusive and looks good in a suit. He, presumably (and because I remember my Real World 1), listens to hip hop and is 'down.' Is he what black responsibility looks like?

NAS, hip hop artist and someone I'd never heard of before a month ago. (Shrug. I never liked carrying that black card, anyway.) His latest album was previously titled the N-word and he, uh, apparently has some strong opinions about the direction of his community:
"His time is up. All you old n---as, time is up. We heard your voice, we saw your marching, we heard your sermons. We don't wanna hear that sh-- no more. It's a new day. It's a new voice. I'm here now. We don't need Jesse; I'm here. I got this. We got Barack, we got David Banners and Young Jeezys. We're the voice now. It's no more Jesse. Sorry. Goodbye. You ain't helping nobody in the 'hood. That's the bottom line. Goodbye, Jesse. Bye!"

Is Nas black responsibility?

And the aforementioned Jesse Jackson, Sr., bogeyman for white conservatives and FOX News, the blurter of bigoted epithets and iambic pentameter-spouting symbol of a (bygone?) civil rights era. Likes to march a lot. We've already seen what Jesse has to offer. (Poor Jesse.)

I guess I'm asking if folks - the folks being asked in all these polls about their comfort with a black president and being asked if racism was really over and being asked what needs to happen for racism to go away without being asked about their own white privilege - would really want to see black self-empowerment and self-determination if that same empowerment was really politicized, conscious and aware that the myth of middle class aspiration isn't enough if you don't address our country's institutionalized race and ethnicity issues, among our other issues.

(Like upended dominoes covering a floor, one toppled piece must impact others.)

I mean, if there was a black leader leading a movement that really understood intersectionality and not just accumulating or accommodating power (like Jackson or Sharpton, easy targets, both of them), wouldn't that mean serious critiques of, and serious work against, our current power structure would have to take place? And wouldn't that mean that those who benefit from that power structure - those who are primarily privileged by it - are also implicated in that critique?

I guess I wonder if people really know what they're asking for when they call for a 'responsible' black community because, to me, a responsible black community is one that's grounded in politics, history and tradition - and its own interests, not necessarily the interests of the larger society. I'm not sure if this means a complete inward consideration, a kind of community self-hibernation while we work to change things, or something not so scary for other folks.

(Which reminds me of something my friend Prof. A- would say to me: 'Girl, there ain't nothing scarier than a black man with a degree.')

Responsibility perhaps isn't what people think it is. (And let's face it; our country does not have the greatest track record dealing with communities of color exercising self-determination, know what I mean?) For whom is the black community responsible? To whom or what is the black community, or the various black communities that exist, responsible? From where I sit, it's not the folks who want us to get our act together before addressing theirs.

I don't know. I'm just asking questions.


wade said...

As a low, low, (recently made even lower thanks to big oil), middle-class, white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant male I’m even more confused now by the recent re-emergence of race discussions on the national dialog. I’ve always considered myself progressive and a live-let-live kind of guy but even I don’t know what to think anymore. My definition of racist doesn’t fit with your definition of racist, which doesn’t fit with the next person’s definition.

I’m glad these discussions are happening, because they definitely need to, but would someone please provide me with a syllabus and a definition list so I can understand exactly where each side stands?

An example, Whoopie’s discussion with that other girl on the View about how we can never know what it’s like to grow up like she did as an African-American in a white world, I find extremely condescending. She throws out this concept and that’s that. No more discussion can be made about it? Maybe that other girl on the View had an equally difficult childhood growing up a closet lesbian in a Republican household. I realize these are different because the lesbian thing can be hidden, but for the discussion to merely end because we (as white people) did not experience mass hatred and discrimination doesn’t forward the discussion anymore than the concept of responsibility that Bill Crosby is touting. (I kept typing Bing Crosby for some reason)

I believe it is up to each person to wipe the slate clean internally and just make a starting point. Meaning… approach each person with racial blindness and treat him or her with respect. In time, if enough people buy into it… racism disappears. I know it’s not the perfect answer, and it doesn’t address past or even present wrongs… but it has to be better than the current animosity everyone is throwing around.

ding said...

Well, Wade, unfortunately, it all depends.

I think there are different ways of analyzing Racism. (I'll use a big R to set it apart.) Most of those who do anti-Racism work use the following equation:

Race prejudice + Institutional Power = Racism

Where I work, this equation is the primary framework for our internal racial justice training. From here, we go on to identify which Institutions we're talking about (Education, Healthcare, Justice, Economics, etc.) and to discuss the different ways that White Privilege (who has it and who doesn't) either smoothes the way through these various Institutions or does not.

This framework presumes, of course, that we're all on the same page when it comes to defining privilege. Sometimes we're not. Speaking of white privilege, or the privilege that follows one with white skin, is almost more difficult to discuss than Racism.

And, of course, the conversation about these things also implicates the participants in classism, sexism and other -isms that intersect with race (race/sexuality, race/class, race/gender, race/ability.) So the conversation becomes even more complicated.

For the most part, our so-called national dialogue about race can't even get past the most basic part: acknowledging that racial justice work still needs to be done.

For me, the difficulty of these conversations comes when the discussion seems to conflate personal acts of bigoted behavior with Institutional Racism; the conversation gets sidetracked into people insisting they, personally, aren't racist and that I'm a racist for forcing them to think along racial lines.

Which, of course, is never the point; personally, I'm not interested in whether people think they're racists. The point is to recognize the different ways this world operates for different people and change it.

For me, that's what eliminating racism means. If the world operates one way for the majority, I want the world to operate that same way for the rest of us. But this is just me. Other anti-racism work has different goals and different frameworks. But I think mine is a pretty good standard to work from.

Now, I don't know if this works so well. As much as you might want to ignore my color, your being blind to it won't stop the fact that I get followed in Nordstroms and you don't. Unless, of course, you manage to blind everyone else in Nordstrom. Then it's ok.

As for syllabus, I know of some good blogs/sources:

For fundamentally unpacking the way that white privilege works, you must read Peggy MacIntosh's piece "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack."

Tim Wise is a very good, strong writer on anti-racist work. He's a bit, uh, 'in your face' for many but he's right about a lot.

The blog Stuff White People Do is also very good, as is Too Sense.

Though discussions of race hardly ever talk about more than just black/white issues, ColorLines does just that. It's a newsmagazine that filters current events specifically through different communities - Black, Latino, Asian, etc. They also have a blog, RaceWire, that's also very good, with links to other blogs written by people of color.

It is up to all of us as individuals to wipe the slate clean but it takes work, like being any other kind of ally takes work. It took me years to be aware of and slowly eliminate the most egregious straight girl crap I carried; is it all gone? Nope, but I'm working on it and I hope that my gay friends can call me an ally.

The average hysterical racist isn't going to do this work; the average apathetic white person isn't going to do this work; the average brown/tan/light yellow/black person probably wishes there were more who would.

ding said...

As for Whoopie, I can understand her shortness and abruptness. Elizabeth has said some problematic shit on that show and Whoopie is probably about to snatch her bald.

As brown people, how many times have we patiently explained to other people how certain things play to us brown folk? No, that cover wasn't funny; no, you can't call black women's hair 'unprofessional;' no, you can't call me 'baby mama' and no, you cannot use the word Oreo (that one's for you, Jim McLaughlin.)

That shit has resonance and unless one is seriously ready to get into the history of these issues and listen, then, folks, don't bring it up.

In particular, how many times must the onus of the N-word be thrown back on us when we didn't even make up the fucking word? It's a tiring conversation and all we want is for white people to stop using it or asking about it when the issue isn't about the N-word.

In general, there are certain conversation that black folks are tired of having: the N-word conversation, the hip hop conversation, the baby mama conversation, the Ebonics conversation.

Why? Because these conversations are bullshit and a distraction. Ok, now I'm just ranting. Sorry.

wade said...

i'm going to agree with you on being tired of the conversations you listed. in addition, as a gay man, how many more times do i need to be asked "who is the woman, who is the man in a relationship"? so i get it.

But to take it one step further and hold Whoopie accountable... (devil's advocate that i am) She is in a position to hold just such a discourse with her audience. That other girl on the View (I refuse to type her name) already plays the part of the average stupid white conservative, so imagine the power of having Whoopie and her having a conversation and how many stereotypes would be broken.

Ellen was forced to do just such a thing about her lesbianist tendencies and now you don't think.. "i'm going to watch that lesbian Ellen", you think "I'm going to watch that Ellen". she has effectively negated her difference while at the same time making sure that everyone is aware of that very painful fact by calling people out on their stupidity.

I think Whoopie could do wonders for both the better understanding of racism and women's issues.

All in all... you and i agree on these topics. I just wish the rest of this stupid society could get up to speed.

I'm going to get off my soap box and go back to the grind.

ding said...

if you and i ruled the world, wade...

you're right; Whoopie probably passed up a teaching moment with that Elizabeth person. but that Elizabeth person doesn't seem to be 'teachable.' you know?

if you read the MacIntosh piece in its entirety (and there's a better version here) you'll come across this:

"Disapproving of the systems won’t be enough to change them. I was taught to think that racism could end if white individuals changed their attitudes. (But) a “white” skin in the United States opens
many doors for whites whether or not we approve of the way dominance has been conferred on us.
Individual acts can palliate, but cannot end, these problems.
To redesign social systems we need first to acknowledge their colossal unseen dimensions. The
silences and denials surrounding privilege are the key political tool here. They keep the thinking about equality or equity incomplete, protecting unearned advantage and conferred dominance by making these taboo subjects. Most talk by whites about equal opportunity seems to me now to be about equal opportunity to try to get into a position of dominance while denying that systems of dominance exist.
It seems to me that obliviousness about white advantage, like obliviousness about male
advantage, is kept strongly inculturated in the United States so as to maintain the myth of meritocracy, the myth that democratic choice is equally available to all. Keeping most people unaware that freedom of
confident action is there for just a small number of people props up those in power, and serves to keep
power in the hands of the same groups that have most of it already."

Is that Elizabeth woman ready to take all this responsibility to do this? I doubt it.

bitchphd said...

Wait, Kevin? From TRL? Didn't he get booted from the house because he was an "angry black man"?

ding said...

I know!

He was the 'angry Black man' template and now he's running for Congress!!

Gotta love it.