Friday, July 17, 2009

Racial mutterings

"And what does it say about President Obama's claiming to be post-racial when his first Supreme Court nominee is Sotomayor, his attorney general, Eric Holder is a huge reverse discrimination supporter and his education undersecretary for civil rights, Russlyn Ali, so often calls people racist when they dare disagree with her reverse-discrimination advocacy." - Marty Nemko, May 31, 2009.

What does it say? That he's willing to consider people who hold certain views for certain positions. What do you think it means, Mr. Nemko? Oh, never mind - I've deciphered your ever-so-sly intimation: President Obama is a racist. That wasn't so hard to say, was it?

Being post-racial does not mean being post-race. Nemko is making the same disturbing mistake that I've seen several other commentators making when discussing race: he assumes that "being post-racial" somehow equates to the idea that "race is no longer an issue". This is the same fallacy that equates "diversity" and "being color-blind": Diversity is not the absence of color, but the affirmation of color. And, in the same way, moving past racism does not and must not equate to "no longer caring about or discussing race"; it must mean "affirming race and issuing correctives so that the roots of racism continue to lose their grasp on America."

The Commander-in-Chief is not some political Gordian Knot that, once sundered, signifies freedom and equality throughout the land. It is a sign - as there have been many, as there will be many - that the American people are beginning to progress as a community. It's wonderful that the country voted a Black man is president; it's wonderful that some minority citizens aren't cowering under the lash. But until every minority citizen can live out a life in this country with a reasonable expectation of freedom from the dictum that Your Race Isn't Welcome Here - whether suppressive, as in the case of the Asian "Model Minority" myth; or oppressive, overt racism - "post-racial" America is still an unfulfilled process.

So, what does it mean that Obama's Supreme Court nominee is a Hispanic woman? What does it mean that he supports certain policies on race?

Might it simply be that President Obama thinks that these choices will continue the push towards racial equality?


Oh, OK.

Similarly, from right-wing blog View from the Right:

"[What does post-racial America mean?] It means a post-white America, an America transformed by the symbolic removal of whiteness as the country's explicit or implicit historic and majority identity. ..."

Guess what: America is post-white. In the last national census, 26% of responding Americans self-identified as something other than White Alone. Of course, the majority of citizens are White; English, a language with European roots, is the de facto primary language of the land. But what does it even mean for a country to have a "majority identity"? And what does it have to do with me? Sure, Whiteness is an explicitly and implicitly dominant part of this country's culture; but, and pardon my boldness in this, I assumed that the majority identity of this country was American culture.

You know: Muckrakers and Superman (created by 2 Jews), French fries (created by a Native chef), Jazz (no comment necessary), Rock (comment unnecessary again), transcontinental migration and bicoastal communication (a network built on the backs of Irish and Chinese immigrants). A melange of racial influence and scrappy do-it-yourself intuitive inventiveness. Yes, White influences served as the initial foundation for this country; and its further development was definitely fueled by waves of immigrants from Ireland, Scotland, Germany, France, and other countries in Western and Eastern Europe.

But, at some point, my dinner ceases to be a couple of carrots, two chunks of meat, a packet of spices, and a pot of water, to being a stew. A stew, a broth with distinct elements hinted-at but inextricable from the lot. Why can't "my" country be the same?

I fear - though I sincerely hope to one day be proven wrong - that the intimated answer of many commentators on ethnicity in America is simply thus: This Is Not Your Country.

This is what some say: "the anti-white policies and attitudes, from affirmative action to open borders for Hispanics to the multicultural rewriting of history [oh heavens no; History is anything but!] to endless compaigns against "white racial privilege," [a thorough myth] will remain in place. What will change is that whites will not protest these anti-white policies any more, will not mutter under their breath about them any more, will not even think about muttering under their breath about them any more. Instead, they will unreservedly embrace them, in the joy of racial unity and harmony."

And this is what I hear:

This is not your country; you're living in rented space.

This is not your country; you're living in the perpetual guest room, furnished similarly to - as comfortable as - the master bedroom, save for its lesser metaphysical status.

This is not your country; as long as you behave yourself and act like us, we'll grant you squatters' rights. But don't get too comfortable; and for (a Western Protestant) God's Sake don't put up your own decorations! Our paintings - our decorative coffeetable books - our carefully-selected DVD library are good enough for us. And they ought to suffice for you.

Well, I don't ask to remodel; I'm quite happy with the kitchenette the way it is, and the laundry machine works quite well (though the couple who used to own the house have mentioned that you've were a little underhanded in repurposing it from them). But if, as you say, this room is mine for the letting - indeed, not merely for subletting but actually leasing-to-own - can I please at least add a film or two to your library? What about removing some of the more dull or outdated magazines from the nightstand?

Can I, perhaps, cook the food in "our" kitchen - food that my wages bought - the way my mother taught me to cook?

Might I, at the least, hang up the pictures of my father from his youth?


Oh, OK.

(Update: I was prompted on facebook to further defend the connection i draw between "affirming Whiteness" and "xenophobia". I did so by drawing upon the concept of white privilege; more information is in the comments.)


  1. A comment left on facebook:

    "so, as to race and such, when exactly did "the content of their character" fall out of fashion?

    and how does one commentator being concerned about the deliberate marginalization of historical American ("white," as it seems to be inevitably and rather pointlessly labelled) culture equate with xenophobia? Maybe some people think that if you want to ... Read Moreactively "affirm race" that you should also extend that affirmation to those of us who are ethnically/culturally "white" as well, and not exclusively to "non-white" cultures, as some would seem so eager to do. Maybe I'm missing something, but I can't find any sign that this commentator wants to marginalize anyone, or make them feel that they're living in "rented space." He seems much more concerned that the so-called "race affirming" policies that are so trendy right now will render him unwelcome in the country he calls home. Now, he may be completely unjustified in this concern, but what you're intimating from his words is quite a stretch."

  2. And my response:

    "I'm sorry, I think I don't really understand your first point: I don't think that one's character isn't important, not at all.

    But I do think that generally labeling programs for affirmative action (perhaps an overly optimistic term) as "reverse discrimination" (an overly pejorative term) is as disingenuous as equating, as you say, being White with being xenophobic.

    That said, my problem with the commentator's concern is that he is not concerned with the marginalization of historical American culture; at least, that is not what I glean from the fuller blog article (I did, of course, use excerpts particularly illustrative of the point I derived)....

    He is concerned with the de-emphasizing of one part of historical American culture (the white male narrative) in favor of a broader perspective (factoring in slave narratives; female narratives; immigrant narratives).

    The problem with saying that we should "affirm Whiteness" is that the de facto cultural background, at this point, is to affirm Whiteness. The curricula in most schools, the skills being appreciated, the aesthetic qualities being admired, are generally derived from the historic Male perspective.
    (more information about bias on standardized tests. For more about White privilege, Tim Wise has an excellent essay making the rounds)

    The fact is, by not actively taking positive steps to affirm non-Caucasian/European cultures, we are all complicit in the continued marginalizing of minority cultures.

    Maybe there will come a day when White men are unwelcome in this country; on that hypothetical day, I hope to gladly stand by them. But now - right now - all I know is that there are many men and women, of many races, who do not feel welcome because of their race. Can it be wrong to take a step towards embracing them (us)?

    Thanks for your candor. I'm trying to keep an open mind, myself: growth will only come through dialogue, and dialogue only through mutual care and concern.