Thursday, March 20, 2008

More on Race

I was just reading Pam on Obama's speech:

And yet, he was not afraid to challenge people of all colors in denial that the conversations kept out of polite company need to come out of the closet. All of us need to work through the fear that words will be misunderstood or poorly received. Trust must be built, thicker skin must be developed, and emotional effort must be expended to solve these problems.

This is the kind of stuff that wears on people of color on a day-to-day basis, but I’d rather put my energies into talking this stuff out than taking my ball and going home, or as Obama referred to, retreating to our corners. I wish others would do the same.

I honestly do not know what this means, by which I mean that I do not know what we're going to next. Talk? Where? How? What are we supposed to say to each other? "Hi, my name is Wendy, and I'm a racist"? or "I'm ok, you're ok even if you are a racist"?

I'm a pragmatist. What do we do next?

Once again, Crash did all this navel-gazing already. It took racial prejudice out of the closet and showed people doing and saying all sorts of racist things while also showing them trying to be decent people. And it was decried as crap by a lot of liberals.

Amanda et al talk a little about Crash.

Obama's Speech

Really, I think it was a good speech. But I'm going to nitpick/complicate the uncritical readings of it.

Basically, my PhD is in African American literature, and I specialize in 19th and early 20th AfriAm lit. I went into the study of African American lit somewhat naive but with an overwhelming sense that I needed to make this study about the literature, not about me. I am white, not black. I have spent much of the last 20 years striving not to be a Noble White Liberal. If someone tells me I have said/done something racist, I take that seriously. All I can do is commit to trying to understand and thus to be a better member of my community.

That is my philosophical statement on being white and talking about race.

I don't have any problem with Rev. Wright's statements. Like Obama, I know where they come from:

For the men and women of Reverend Wright’s generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. ...

That anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition, and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change. But the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.

But there are a few things Obama said that made me pause. First:

But the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren’t simply controversial. They weren’t simply a religious leader’s effort to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country – a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.

White racism isn't endemic? I think that's naive.

I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.

First, I do love the allusion to "Theme for English B," the black student trying to figure out how to communicate who he is to his white instructor. I like how rhetorically he transforms the black-white difference to the racist-nonracist difference. However, if we pick at that rhetorical move a little, it can't hold up. Blacks and whites will always exist in our country. But let's not hope/accept that racists and non-racists will always exist in our country. The goal is to transform racists into non-racists. We can *accept* that racists co-exist with non-racists *now*, but are we really saying we accept their racism?

Perhaps what Obama is saying is that people are complex, and we need to accept the *people* while trying to change their ideas. But the funny thing is that back in 2004, there was a movie that made this same point, and it was decried by many a liberal as being simplistic and facile. That movie was Crash.

I don't have time right now to look up every review of Crash. (For one thing, the word "crash" would be so difficult to search for within blogs and news sources because it is so common. Couldn't Haggis have called the move UEFGGW? or something like that? ;) Here is a typical criticism of the movie, from Cineaste.

The film tells us that no one is all good or all bad. This is a facile, obvious notion, and ironically, one Crash propounds only by showing human behavior at its polar extremes.

How is that different from what Obama says? Why is it facile when Haggis says it, but transformative when Obama does? It's not that Obama isn't correct; it's that just a few years ago it was "in" to criticize Crash for the very same points that Obama makes.

The other part of the speech that bugged me is the example he gave at the end of the speech about Ashley and the elderly black man at a roundtable:

Anyway, Ashley finishes her story and then goes around the room and asks everyone else why they’re supporting the campaign. They all have different stories and reasons. Many bring up a specific issue. And finally they come to this elderly black man who’s been sitting there quietly the entire time. And Ashley asks him why he’s there. And he does not bring up a specific issue. He does not say health care or the economy. He does not say education or the war. He does not say that he was there because of Barack Obama. He simply says to everyone in the room, “I am here because of Ashley.”

Obama's example seems heartwarming--the young 19 year old girl and the unnamed (why isn't his name mentioned? Does it not matter?) elderly black man sharing a connection and a commitment to justice.

But you know what? All I can think of is Claudia MacTeer's frustration over Shirley Temple dancing with Bill Robinson, "who ought to have been soft-shoeing it and chuckling with [her]. Instead he was enjoying, sharing, giving a lovely dance thing with one of those little white girls whose socks never slid down under their heels."

Maybe Obama wanted to make a point about the coalition of the powerless coming together to be empowered, but there is something that galls about Obama's pride in the nameless black man's promise to be there for the young privileged named white girl.

I forget what blog post I read that explained the generational differences here. Obama is espousing a social justice vision that distinguishes itself from the identity politics of previous generations of feminists and civil rights activists. Maybe he can make it happen. But I think we still have way too much history to work through, and there is a whole generation right now of men and women just as angry as the people of Rev. Wright's generation. They're not in the churches; they're on the street corners and in the jails and in abandoned houses without electricity trying to survive.

There is a fine line between looking toward the future, and ignoring the past and the present.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Barack and Langston

Despite my recently re-found radical feminism, I have spent the last 20 years writing/researching/teaching in African American studies.
So allusions often pop out at me:

Obama: These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.

Hughes (Theme for English B): You are white---
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
That's American.
Sometimes perhaps you don't want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that's true!

On the other hand...
Obama: Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country - a view that sees white racism as endemic...

Uh, that's a distorted view?

That said, it's a good speech overall.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Obama and feminism

This is not a feminist rationale for Obama. How dare you, Adele, pretend that it is?

It's a humanist rationale, talking about the importance and dignity of all humans, about the importance of social and economic justice, about our fears that the world will be harsh to future generations. It's a great pro-Obama rationale.

But it's not a feminist rationale.

Adele Stan is a feminist who happens to support Obama. That's ok, but you don't need to shit on feminism to make your point.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Anti-Immigration Idiocy

What an asshole.

As owner David C. Richardson was ringing up Genao’s $18 purchase, he demanded to see their Social Security cards.

What followed was a telling encounter underscoring the tensions in this country over immigration and ethnicity.

When Genao told Richardson “he did not have the right to ask all those questions,” Richardson pulled out a membership card for Rhode Islanders for Immigration Law Enforcement, a group that seeks curbs on illegal immigration.

Rhode Islanders for Immigration Law Enforcement???

I am so glad this asshole's behavior has been publicized. How many people has he been terrorizing?

Monday, March 10, 2008

Hillary's Executive Branch Experience

Three inservices this week: Writing Across the Curriculum, some Outcomes inservice we're all required to attend, and a Technology inservice I'm running because I opened my big mouth at orientation last fall and suggested it. *sigh*

But I'm not here to complain about my workload. I'm here to complain about this quote:

"Saying that Hillary has Executive Branch experience is like saying Yoko Ono was a Beatle," - Kos commenter, Jsn.

Via Sully via Reddit.

The moronic Kos commenter (and really, are there any other kinds these days?) is comparing apples and oranges. The proper comparison is "Saying that Hillary has Executive Branch experience is like saying Gwyneth Paltrow has experience in rock and roll." (I changed to Gwyneth because Yoko was a musician in her own right, no?) And you could say, yes, Gwyneth does have experience in rock and roll because of her marriage to Chris Martin. She has more experience in rock and roll than I do.

There is only one President in the US at a time and there have been only 43 (42? Do we count Cleveland twice?) in the history of the US. And a very small circle of people have knowledge of precisely how the office of the President is run. One of those people would have to be the First Lady, especially a First Lady as intelligent and interested in a future political career as Hillary Clinton. Let us not forget that it was Edith Wilson who acted as unofficial president when her husband was disabled by a stroke. And does anyone really want to argue that Eleanor Roosevelt didn't have Executive Branch experience?

So to sum up: stupid line of reasoning. Next?