Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Consciousness of White Privilege Has Great Potential

I often take notice when white people say things in public that reflect their lack of self-awareness in terms of white privilege.

For example, Geraldine Ferraro, you know that lady from the Clinton campaign who basically reduced Obama to a token "blackie" of the public.

I was recently directed to a very insightful Los Angeles Times article by Gregory Rodriguez, who writes about a less-obvious racism that takes place when some whites feel threatened by "minorities" in power (such as Geraldine Ferraro):

Rodriguez writes,
Geraldine Ferraro's remark that "if [Barack] Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position" was not racist per se; it did not presume racial inferiority on the part of any person or group. But it was remarkably arrogant, ignorant and, unfortunately, reflective of an all too common and growing sentiment in the post-Civil Rights era.
In 1999, the Seattle Times commissioned a survey that found 75% of whites agreed with the statement that "unqualified minorities get hired over qualified whites" most or some of the time. Two-thirds felt the same when asked about promotions and college admissions. Whether white disadvantage is real or imagined, the poll showed that a considerable number of whites feel threatened not only by the means of ascent but by minority advancement itself. Clearly, most minorities who advance up the professional ladder are not unqualified. (If you think that last sentence is incorrect, you probably are a true-blue racist.)
Unlike so many -- often media-created -- black leaders, Obama doesn't use a parochial message of victimhood or the zero-sum logic of "us versus them." Rather than spend a lot of time talking about racism, historical or otherwise, he preaches a form of collective can-doism. He sells himself as a symbol of reconciliation and knows that at this point in history, cries of racism are the quickest way to turn off white voters who are tired of being made to feel guilty for racial injustice.

Geraldine's case is not a new one, nor is it very fascinating. Yet talking about this kind of thing is important, because racism is popularly interpreted as a one-way thing--it's something someone thinks of someone else. Yet as Rodriguez's article points out, racism is more about what one thinks of oneself.

As I like to reflect on issues of people of color, it often crosses my mind how valuable it is when white people are conscious of their whiteness. Not in a patronizing way, but in a natural way, like how black people naturally know from a very young age that they will always have a natural disadvantage in society because of their skin color. What I like about this article is that it touches upon the subtle racisms of today that are rooted in racist structures of society.

Simply saying that Obama, or any person of color with cultural capital, has what he has because he is black points to the enormously ignored reality that in fact the opposite of this has historically been true: throughout our country's history, it is white men whose power is acquired because they were who they were. When we look at someone in power, we must become aware of our prejudices: when we make a claim about one person in power, why don't we realize that we are conveniently opting out of making a claim about everyone else who is in power?

Some may look at Obama and reduce his popularity to his race, yet how is it that so many white men have gone unquestioned in their positions of popularity or power in our country?

I disagree that Obama's blackness is his ticket to the White House, but I will not hesitate in asserting that Bill Gates and George Bush are in the positions they are in largely in part of their white masculinity. Being a white man has always been, and remains to be, the greatest source of cultural capital in our world--let alone our country--today.

It is important to explain, however, that when I say such a thing, I am not asserting that white people cannot understand the implications of white/male cultural capital (and of course I'm just touching on the surface issues, because I could also talk about the cultural capital that comes with heterosexuality, class, education...etc). As much as I point out privileges that naturally come with whiteness, what matters is what a person decides to do with knowledge of such privileges. I firmly believe that consciousness of priviledge has a lot more potential of power than consciousness of disadvantage.

In other words, a lot more progress can be accomplished when more white and/or male people are aware of the advantages that come with being white and/or male. I know of several white people who are conscious in this way, but it's not enough.

The more white people conscious of privilege, the more power they have to make change for the better of all people. Privilege combined with consciousness equals great power, and so to end on a cheesy note, with great privilege comes great responsibility--use it!


Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Why is Whiteness Absent in Reports of L.A. Violence?

Los Angeles' "Dangerous" image is very racialized. Maybe this comes as a "no duh" to some, but it's a point that I can't help but stress in light of the commotion instigated by media reports all over blacks and Latinos and killings and so on.

Mandalit del Barco's Los Angeles Times article:

Sirens and gunshots are the soundtrack of South Los Angeles, formerly known as South Central. People thought changing the name would change the neighborhood's image, but it hasn't. L.A. is in the midst of a new surge in gang violence that is claiming some very young victims.

Barco's piece really captures the racialized negative image of the dangerous Los Angeles. What specifically bothers me is that articles like these are repeatedly emphasizing violence associated with themes of Latino gang violence, brown v. black divide, and so on.

It's angering for these media reports to capture these highly tragic events as isolated racial issues rather than as symptoms of a greater structural force of dominant white society.

For example, in Barco's article, one can look at the following description:
The parents of a 6-year-old African-American boy who was shot in the head when Latino gang members opened up on the family's SUV are experiencing similar pain.

That same week, a 42-year-old Latino man and his 20-year-old son were shot to death outside their home for no apparent reason as well.

Whiteness is completely absent in conversations about such tragedies. Yet I ask, isn't the absence of something like whiteness a presence? I cannot accept these racialized accounts because they indirectly forge whiteness out of the picture. In reading these stories, I feel as if I am being led to blame one minority over the other, or blame them both. I have no grounds to attribute accountability towards the white race, only blacks and Latino ethnicities.

I feel coerced. I feel stripped of my power to point to the oppression of blacks and Latinos because I am continually reading articles that clearly depict them as oppressing themselves.

How am I to argue about greater economic, legal, and societal systems of white dominance when these reports completely reject these factors from the start by not stating them as relevant? That's just it, I can't. I am silenced because my argument for the relevancy of whiteness contradicts the founding racialized assumptions of such reports.

Read Barco's article in full, there's so much more to what I've been able to conjure up in response.


Monday, March 3, 2008

Live from New York, Here's Your Saturday Night Minstrel Show!

From Aretha Franklin to Star Jones, Kenan Thompson is no stranger to making a spectacle out of the large black woman. The fictional character of Virginiaca Hastings literally takes the cake as Kenan's most minstrelesque role on Saturday Night Live.

This is not merely a matter of dressing in drag, but a much deeper racist and sexist mockery of the hypersexualized black woman.

As the skit opens, we are taken to the Baby Gap, and the high class narrative voice of a man says, "and now, shopping with Virginiaca." It's no accident; the man's upper-class intelligent voice serves to poke fun at the name itself--it's reminiscent of stereotypical black names like Laquesha.

Kenan Thompson then stomps into the store dressed as the stereotypical large black woman with a small cheetah-skinned purse and long nails. To top it off, he's stuffing cake down his throat. When approached by a young white male worker, who asks if he is looking for baby clothes, the conversation turns into "can you lift me up over your head," and "do you wanna see me in some baby clothes?" Then it gets worse, as "Virginiaca" pulls out her phone and calls for her daughter, "girl you are gettin' on my one big nerve, where is you?"

Then Ellen Page, the leading actress in Juno, runs in with a loud husky voice and a huge black afro. The two proceed to obsess over small children's pants as "booty shorts," and are insulted when the worker insists they won't fit Virginiaca's step daughter, who complains, "mama he's tryin' a seminate that I'm fat or sumthin'."

After complaining that they need the shorts for their "booty back and forths," they show the worker their dance--which is basically just them shaking their butts. The skit ends as Virginia stuffs her face with chips from her purse and hits on the worker by flaunting her large breasts on the counter and then jumping onto a table and shaking her butt. The worker proclaims, "I quit," and leaves the set, with Virginiaca still on the table.

The entire skit is a minstrel show--the mispronounced words, the exaggerated outfits, the big hair, the obnoxious voices, and of course, the dancing. The presence of the young white male worker is most important, for he is the character that non-black/female audiences are meant to immediately identify with. His purpose in the skit is to serve as the white male gaze and simultaneously lasso-in the audience into an us against them--the two "black women."

As a consequence, we get a minstrel show which focuses primarily on the large black Virginiaca who throws herself at us constantly. Along the lines of Eddie Murphy's horrible Mrs. Rice character. We are then supposed to derive a perverse pleasure out of watching her big, overeating, big-breasted body disgust us nonstop.

Yes, perverse. It's a disgusting pleasure that comes from observing a large, sexualized black woman made into a complete spectacle by a black man dressed in drag.