Carrie Mae Weems, You Became a Scientific Profile (top), An Anthropological Debate (middle), and And I Cried (bottom) from From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried, 1995–96. Collection of The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Copyright Carrie Mae Weems.
Posts tagged race.
Slavery has never been abolished from America’s way of thinking.
[Langston] Hughes, in his sermons, blues and prayers, has working for him the power and the beat of Negro speech and Negro music. Negro speech is vivid largely because it is private. It is a kind of emotional shorthand—or sleight-of-hand—by means of which Negroes express, not only their relationship to each other, but their judgment of the white world. And, as the white world takes over this vocabulary—without the faintest notion of what it really means—the vocabulary is forced to change. The same thing is true of Negro music, which has had to become more and more complex in order to continue to express any of the private or collective experience.
The Negro recognizes the unreality of many of the beliefs that he has adopted with reference to the subjective attitude of the white man. When he does, his real apprenticeship begins. And reality proves to be extremely resistant. But, it will be objected, you are merely describing a universal phenomenon, the criterion of maturity being in fact adaptation to society. My answer is that such a criticism goes off in the wrong direction, for I have just shown that for the Negro there is a myth to be faced. A solidly established myth. The Negro is unaware of it as long as his existence is limited to his own environment; but the first encounter with a white man oppresses him with the whole weight of his blackness. Then there is the unconscious. Since the racial drama is played out in the open, the black man has no time to “make it unconscious.” The white man, on the other hand, succeeds in doing so to a certain extent, because a new element appears: guilt. The Negro’s inferiority or superiority complex or his feeling of equality is conscious. These feelings forever chill him. They make his drama. In him there is none of the affective amnesia characteristic of the typical neurotic.
“To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread. It will be a great day for America, incidentally, when we begin to eat bread again, instead of the blasphemous and tasteless foam rubber that we have substituted for it.
And I am not being frivolous now, either. Something very sinister happens to the people of a country when they begin to distrust their own reactions as deeply as they do here, and become as joyless as they have become. It is this individual uncertainty on the part of white American men and women, this inability to renew themselves at the fountain of their own lives, that makes the discussion, let alone elucidation, of any conundrum—that is, any reality—so suprememly difficult.
The person who distrusts himself has no touchstone for reality—for this touchstone can be only oneself. Such a person interposes between himself and reality nothing less than a labyrinth of attitudes. And these attitudes, furthermore, though the person is usually unaware of it (is unaware of so much!), are historical and public attitudes. They do not relate to the present any more than they relate to the person. Therefore, whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.”
—James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
I HATE WHEN PEOPLE ENTER DISCUSSIONS ABOUT RACE WITHOUT TAKING THE TIME TO EVEN DO A BASIC WIKIPEDIA SEARCH ON THE HISTORY OF THE ISSUES THEY’RE DISCUSSING. BEFORE YOU WRITE OFF FRUSTRATED AND IRATE RESPONSES TO RACISM AS POLITICAL CORRECTNESS OR SILENCING YOUR EXPRESSIVE FREEDOM, YOU SHOULD AT LEAST TAKE THE TIME TO UNDERSTAND THE HISTORY BEHIND WHAT YOU’RE SAYING. IT WOULD BE RIDICULOUS TO HAVE A CONVERSATION ABOUT, FOR EXAMPLE, SHARON NEEDLE’S ABILITY TO EXPRESS HERSELF VIA SHOCK VALUE AT THE PRICE OF POC AND TRANS PEOPLE WITHOUT UNDERSTANDING THE HISTORY BEHIND THE WORDS AND POWER DYNAMICS THAT SHE WAS USING. ITS NEVER SIMPLY ABOUT PERMISSION TO EXPRESS. IF YOU HAVE A VIDEO OF A BLACK WOMAN ON A LEASH IN A SEXUAL CONTEXT, YOU DIDN’T ‘CREATE’ THIS IMAGE IN A VACUUM OF INFLUENCE AND ACCORDINGLY THAT IMAGE DOES NOT EXIST IN A VACUUM OF REFERENCES. QUESTIONS SUCH AS YOUR OWN ACKNOWLEDGEMENT/AWARENESS OF THE DYNAMIC THAT PROMPTED YOU TO FIND SUCH AN IMAGE ‘SHOCKING’ OR INTERESTING IN THE FIRST PLACE (OR LACK THEREOF) ARE CENTRAL TO THE CREATIVE GESTURE THAT YOU’VE MANAGED TO PORTRAY AS A QUESTION PURELY OF INTENT. I HAVE NO PROBLEM WITH THE FACT THAT PEOPLE CHOOSE TO USE OPRESSIVE LANGUAGE, IMAGES, ETC. I THINK YOU SHOULD BE ALLOWED TO SAY AND DO WHATEVER THE FUCK YOU WANT, IF FOR NO OTHER REASON THEN TO SHOW (ESPECIALLY WHEN VIEWED IN A LARGER CONTEXT) A BLATANT EXAMPLE OF THE COLLECTIVE UNCONSCIOUS IN ACTION. I DO, HOWEVER, HAVE A PROBLEM WITH THE PREMISE THAT YOU SHOULD BE PROTECTED OR IMMUNE FROM THE RESPONSES OF THOSE WHOSE REACTIONS ARE CONSCIOUSLY OR UNCONSCIOUSLY INFORMED BY THE HISTORIES YOU WERE TOO IGNORANT OR OBLIVIOUS TO EVER TAKE THE TIME TO UNDERSTAND. THE ONLY REASON SOMEONE LIKE BROOKE CANDY IS SHOCKING IS BECAUSE OF THE REFERENCES SHE MAKES. IF SHE HAD DONE THE SAME VIDEO WITHOUT THE HAIR, WITHOUT THE HOOP EARRINGS, WITHOUT THE ‘CHOLA’ (SELF-PROCLAIMED) INFLUENCE, WITHOUT THE FEMALE BRAGGADOCIO THAT SHE GOT ON LOAN FROM LINGERING PERCEPTIONS OF WOMEN OF COLOR, SHE’D BE AN IRRELEVANT WHITE GIRL RAPPING IN A NASAL ARTIFICIALLY TOUGH VOICE FOR THE APPEAL OF STRAIGHT DUDES WHO THINK ITS ‘SUBVERSIVE’ THAT SHE’S WEARING STRIPPER CLOTHES AND ‘EMBRACING’ THE WORD SLUT WITH A PACK OF 14 YEAR OLD BOYS STARING AT HER CHEST AND AN ASIAN CHILD ON A LEASH THAT I PRAY LEAVES THE EXPERIENCE WITH NO SCARS. BROOKE CANDY DEPRESSES ME, NOT BECAUSE SHE USES THESE INFLUENCES, BUT B/C SHE’S CLEARLY TOO OBTUSE TO KNOW WHAT THEY MEAN OR WHY SHE’S USING THEM. I’M STILL WORKING ON MY READ READ OF THIS WHOLE CARRY, BUT I ENCOUNTERED A LOT OF THINGS TODAY THAT, IN TANDEM WITH THE GENERAL UNACKNOWLEDGED RACIAL CLIMATE WE’RE IN (
A BLACK WOMAN WAS SET ON FIRE BY THE KKK BTW), IS LESS NAUSEATING OR ANGER-INCITING THAN NUMBING. BOOP GENERALLY
“All I remember is the pain, the unspeakable pain; it was as though I were yelling up to Heaven and Heaven would not hear me. And if Heaven would not hear me, if love could not descend from Heaven—to wash me, to make me clean—then utter disaster was my portion. Yes, it does indeed mean something—something unspeakable—to be born, in a white country, an Anglo-Teutonic, antisexual country, black. You very soon, without knowing it, give up all hope of communion. Black people, mainly, look down or look up but do not look at each other, not at you, and white people, mainly, look away. “
—James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
- Troupe: What do you think about Toni Morrison?
- Baldwin: Toni's my ally and it's really probably too complex to get into. She's a black woman writer, which in the public domain makes it more difficult to talk about. . . . Her gift is in allegory. Tar Baby is an allegory. In fact all her novels are. But they're hard to talk about in public. That's where you get in trouble because her books and allegory are not always what it seems to be about. I was too occupied with my recent illness to deal with Beloved. But in general she's taken a myth, or she takes what seems to be a myth, and turns it into something else. I don't know how to put this—Beloved could be about the story of truth. She's taken a whole lot of things and turned them upside down. Some of them—you recognize the truth in it. I think that Toni's very painful to read.
- Troupe: Painful?
- Baldwin: Yes. Because it's always or most times a horrifying allegory; but you recognize that it works. But you don't really want to march through it. Sometimes people have a lot against Toni, but she's got the most believing story of everybody—this rather elegant matron, whose intentions really are serious and, according to some people, lethal.
To my Sikh sisters and brothers: this incident is yet another reminder of what it means for us to be racialized as Others and as eternal Outsiders…We cannot see and name ourselves as ‘accidental’ victims of Islamophobia, which suggests that somehow Muslims are more “appropriate” targets of racism…Striving to be more desirable within an oppressive system–that is built on our social discipline and compels our obedience–will never set us free. What will set us free is our collective liberation and thriving as the proud brown people we were meant to be.
“An even bigger issue is that if people think social justice is about niceness, it means they have fundamentally misunderstood privilege. Privilege does not mean you live in a world where people are nice to you and never insult you. It means you live in a world in which you, and people like you, are given systematic advantages over other people. Being marginalised does not mean people are always nasty to you, it means you live in a world in which many aspects of the cultural, social and economic systems are stacked against people like you. Some very privileged people have had awful experiences in life, but it does not erase their privilege.”
The way in which “politeness” is used as a means from detracting from one’s privilege, the way “nice” people excuse themselves from being implicated in systems of power and oppression, has a converse in the way it affects marginalized people and activists. Social etiquette is asserted by the dominant classes over actual political ideology and praxis; an activist who fails to be “nice” and “polite” to ignorant, oppressive, and/or privileged people is made a leper; by failing to follow the code of ethics the normative, dominate culture deems acceptable, activists who are “not nice” are seen as people lacking social grace, undeserving of the attention needed to take their beliefs and activism seriously. This assertion of etiquette over politics makes activists who are tired of grinning in the face of oppression seem ungrateful and hypocritical—unable to recognize the flaws in their own praxis, usually seen to be the case of a deficiency in their own cognition. So not only does being privileged not mean that people can’t be nasty to you; the way politics of etiquette and kindness work ultimately discredits the work of activists until they are deemed “acceptable” in the dominant culture’s eyes. It keeps privilege from being truly checked and challenged, and constructs another hurdle that activists and marginalized communities have to break through in order to be seen as logical, capable, rational human beings. Get angry. Be loud about it.
For black women, particularly those in the public eye, the answer to this question is often a resounding “Yes.” They are required to be noble examples of black excellence. To be better. To be respectable. And the bounds of respectability are narrowly defined by professional and personal choices reflecting the social mores of the majority culture—patriarchal, Judeo-Christian, heteronormative, and middle class.
Respectability politics work to counter negative views of blackness by aggressively adopting the manners and morality that the dominant culture deems “respectable.” The approach emerged in reaction to white racism that labeled blackness as “other”—degenerate and substandard—with roots in an assimilationist narrative that prevailed in the late-19th-century United States. Black activists and allies believed that acceptance and respect for African-Americans would come by showing the majority culture “we are just like you.”
I’ve been feeling unrestrictedly, monstrously confident lately. It in some ways confuses me, and that feeling of confidence is immediately though subtly rattled by a deep rumination over where that confidence comes from. At once, for too long, my conscience was comprised entirely of minor, isolated dramatic exigencies that pirouetted around issues of race, gender, class, and institutions of privilege, recognizing the core cruxes of these issues but never fully willing to delve into their mechanical, underlying complexities. Namely due in part to the emotional toll these systems of power had (and still do have) over my relatively naif intellectual, cognitive and social apparatus, but largely through my elementary, middle, and high school years, the overwhelming vastness of the hierarchical, stratified layout of society was too harsh and severe to fully digest, especially when coupled with the pressures of work, the insurgence of puberty, and the looming threat of applying to (and possibly getting rejected from) college. My resistance to the overwhelming surge of information, impositions and threat that I felt bombarded me daily, unrelentingly slewing barrages of complex and nuanced problems towards my pre-pubescent psyche, intimacies and paradigms to which I found myself clumsily trying to navigate, usually resulted in my adopting a soured perspective on the world, most akin to cynicism, bordering misanthropy. I was, and still am, okay with feeling contempt, if not rage, for the onslaught of hellish ordeals that I, a young precocious black kid felt obligated to manage in isolation. But what was so disturbing, and, to this day, so fundamentally jarring about that experience—totally, from kindergarten to high school graduation—was that parsing through that barrage of disjunction, isolating my experiences, however minute, into some larger, overarching puzzle of social organization that I felt obligated and compelled to piece together, alone, angrily, unapologetically yet sheepishly, and unsure, meant that my experiences, my joys, frustrations and fears, could only be validated insofar as they could be accurately perceived as iterations of a larger, social problem; no legitimacy could be conferred onto my experiences, or feelings no less, until cleanly deposited into some umbrella sociological category. When friends failed to recognize their privilege, my feeling of anger resonated deeply because it dually meant that they were necessarily ignorant to both social issues and my personal emotionality and intellect; they dismissed the social dynamic that legitimized my very existence. Each friendship lost due to a confrontation about white supremacy, patriarchy, heterosexual modalities or socio-economic organization elucidated a social problem as well as a personal one, leaving me to grapple with the self-doubt elicited from this failure of recognition and interlocution. All sense of personal worth and empowerment would reduce evenly with every instance in which a friend, an acquaintance or stranger reductively crumpled the manifold complexities of social organization into what their ignorant locus of privilege boiled down into the most appealing bead of neo-liberal bullshit, almost always shrouding some sort of structural advantage, or sheer arrogance. With each failed instance—and there were so, so many, painfully many—my own sense of self-worth became more and more tenable, brittling rapidly with my community’s collective misconceptions about social activism, while, in my mind, the dismissive confidence and arrogance of my opposing peers would ossify, creating a seemingly impregnable cognitive, social, and cultural barrier isolating me from the rest of my community. I would spend hours poring over sociological readers, writing on my blog about what I thought the problem ought to be, or how it ought to be understood, and tried to fashion—again, still naif, still a fool to myself—some sort of explanation for why these minutiae were so shrill and spartan, why they had such a hold over me, and why there was seemingly no transference between the unraveling of social dilemmas I’d do in private, on my blog, with all deliberateness concentrated on my computer screen, in beading, blood-shot eyes, ruddy finger tips smashing against my keyboard, crouched on my bed, laptop blazing against my thighs, a corporal ball of funneled, anxious energy, ruminating, contemplating always, dissatisfied, disembarking from the social realities of the present, of the at-home, of the school, of the friend, and retreating into my isolated chamber, and the unraveling I’d tried to do when I’d step outside and enter the real world.
And then something changed, and I don’t quite yet know what. After one more failed instance, a friend into whom I poured the most embarrassingly dark and opaque parts of myself, with his full validation and retrospectively feigned support, his shallow investment in counter-culturalism, radical black artistic expression, it all violently fragmented into the nastiest contention I’ve ever had with a person, a relationship where each intimacy between us was loaded, anchored, impressed with the sting of the feeling I can only describe as a retrospective-recognition-of-mutual-unknowing-between-two-people-that-looks-like-betrayal-and-feels-like-a-cruel-sick-prank that rejuvenates from the charge of bitterness and betrayal so deep-running that looking at each other inspires, in no other way I can express it, a pulsing wave of electric hate. It fucked me over. It hurt more than anything I can remember experiencing. And it took months, almost eight, for me to sever the tether that kept us connected and me in that same, naif depressed funk I’d become far too accustomed to back in my high school years. Something changed; no longer did that experience happen to me, and I still have no clue why. Our friendship was cosmically dense with the sociological, ideological, philosophical, emotional, poetic, heavy, and Romantic stuff good friendships—any kind of relationship—ought to be made of; it was rife with opportunities to learn, and I did. And, still cosmic, I, still small and naif, these problems’ hold over me seem laughably less imposing. I feel bloated on what this means: that I’m no longer subject to any abstract, let alone any person. And it feels terribly fucking good.
THERE’S SOMETHING VERY WEIRD ABOUT THE WAY BLACK BODIES ARE COMMODIFIED. I THINK IT IS HAS TO DO SOMETHING WITH THE NOTION OF ‘COOL.’ IN MY AFRICAN-AMERICAN PHOTOGRAPHIC CULTURE CLASS WE DISCUSSED THE WAY IN WHICH THIS HAPPENS WITH BARACK OBAMA BEING DEPICTED AS THE ‘COOL,’ DOWN TO EARTH PRESIDENT WHO APPEALS TO A YOUNGER DEMOGRAPHIC. THE COTERMINOUS EVOLUTION OF MEDIA CULTURE (TUMBLR, FACEBOOK, 4CHAN, REDDIT) AND THE INTRODUCTION OF THE FIRST PRESIDENT OF COLOR MOST DEFINITELY ALLOWS US TO CLAIM OWNERSHIP OF OUR PRESIDENT IN A WAY THAT WAS NEVER PREVIOUSLY POSSIBLE; WE CAN REPRODUCE, REPLICATE AND DISTORT IMAGES OF HIM TO FIT OUR HUMOR AND MYTHOLOGIES WITH UNPRECEDENTED RAPIDITY. OBAMA HAS THE FIRST PRESIDENTIAL FLICKR; HE WAS THE FIRST PRESIDENT TO BE PHOTOGRAPHED WITH A DIGITAL CAMERA. I THINK THIS IS COOL, BUT ULTIMATELY, I FEEL, THE WAY HIS BODY IS SO EASILY MEME-IFIED, CARTOONED, AND SATIRIZED IRKS ME. I THINK MY PROBLEM COMES MAINLY IN THAT I THINK IT’S A POINTEDLY RACIALIZED PHENOMENON. THINK OF 2-PAC AT COACHELLA, AND HOW BIZARRE AND DISRESPECTFUL IT WAS THAT LARGELY WHITE, UPPER-MIDDLE CLASS SUBURBAN KIDS GOT TO TAKE 2-PACS BODY—POST-HUMOUSLY, NO FUCKING LESS—AND RENDER IT BOTH A HOLOGRAM AND AN OBJECT D’ART, A TOKEN OF SUBURBAN FETISH. RATHER THAN A POLITICIZED ARTIST, BECAUSE HE’S ‘COOL,’ BECAUSE HIS BODY IS MADE A SYMBOL OF HIP-HOP’S MYSTIQUE, HE BECAME PROPERTY OF THIS CULTURAL INDIE NICHE, A PRODUCT OF OUR CREEPY, NOSTALGIC VENERATION FOR ANYTHING REMOTELY URBAN, INSTEAD OF AN ACTUAL PERSON. COULDN’T HAPPEN TO JOHN LENNON, ELVIS, OR KURT COBAIN. WON’T HAPPEN TO BILLY JOEL, I SWEAR. WEIRD SHIT. WEIRD SHIT.
Language and Race/Ethnicity
“A superficial examination of Roget’s Thesaurus of the English Language reveals the following facts; the word WHITENESS has 134 synonyms; 44 of which are favorable and pleasing to contemplate, i.e. purity, cleanness, immaculateness, bright, shining, ivory, fair, blonde, stainless, clean, clear, chaste, unblemished, unsullied, innocent, honorable, upright, just, straight-forward, fair, genuine, trustworthy, (a white man- colloquialism). Only ten synonyms for WHITENESS appear to me have negative implications—and these only in the mildest sense: gloss over, whitewash, gray, wan, pale, ashen, etc.
The word BLACKNESS has 120 synonyms, 60 of which are distinctly unfavorable, and none of them even mildly positive. Among the offending 60 were such words as: blot, blotch, smut, smudge, sully, begrime, soot, becloud, obscure, dingy, murky, low-toned, threatening, frowning, foreboding, forbidden, sinister, baneful, dismal, thundery, evil, wicked, malignant, deadly, unclean, dirty, unwashed, foul, etc…..not to mention 20 synonyms directly related to race, such as: Negro, Negress, nigger, darky, blackamoor, etc.
When you consider the fact that thinking itself is sub-vocal speech—in other words, one must use words in order to think at all—you will appreciate the enormous heritage of racial prejudgement that lies in wait for any child born into the English Language. Any teacher good or bad, white or black, Jew or Gentile, who uses the English Language as a medium of communication is forced, willy-nilly, to teach the Negro child 60 ways to despise himself, and the white child 60 ways to aid and abet him in the crime.
Who speaks to me in my Mother Tongue damns me indeed!…the English Language—in which I cannot conceive myself…my enemy, with which to survive at all I must continually be at war.”
— Ossie Davis, The English Language is My Enemy