Archive for the ‘Race’ Category

I tried to post this comment on Studio 360’s website, but it was too long.

I read this book last year when you first suggested it. At that point I was on the cusp of coming out to myself, but wasn’t there yet. I’ve also been drenched in conservative Christianity since birth. And I wrote my dissertation on African American history. So I was very eager to read this book, but it just didn’t click for me. The faith aspect didn’t work. I didn’t recognize the Christians I knew in the main character. He was so ambivalent about faith and yet controlled by it. The folks in Christian circles I know are so much more passionate about faith and gripped by this desire to be close to God.

But when I started thinking about writing this comment, I realized nine months of being out to myself might just have changed my perspective on this. I’m starting to realize how entrenched my own internal homophobia has been. I don’t care any more what the Bible says about stuff, but I do care immensely that I maintain a good relationship with my mom. How does one do both, when my wonderful mom believes that faith in God is the most meaningful thing in life, and indeed the only way to have meaning in life. She is more willing to accept my homosexuality as long as it doesn’t alienate me from God. Well, I’ve been alienated from a didactic God far longer than I’ve been aware of my own sexuality, and for many reasons other than sexuality (though that is a major piece).

So I guess I can understand better how the main character could basically be alienated from his faith in high school, but continue to feel controlled by it–something I couldn’t understand when I read the book initially.

I do think one of the reasons I had such a hard time with the book is that so many of my own objections to Christianity are rooted in my identification as a thinking woman. The kind of Baptist church I was raised in praised schoolwork, introduced me to the possibilities of literary criticism and multiple translations, and yet I walked away with this idea that becoming a scholar was one of the most demeaning of life choices. Really, an arm-chair intellectual, when I could be a missionary? (African American history has in some ways continued this line of thought–though replacing missionary with activist). It is hard for me to believe that my thirsty mind is the sign of health instead of latent wickedness that needs to be curbed.

But the main character in this book does not seek an intellectual understanding of Christianity, nor does his problems or wrestling with faith really arise from his mind. So I had a hard time relating to him, when I thought that I would perfectly relate to the book based on your interview. Maybe that is an indication of the success of the author in achieving this very particular narrator, who is not very smart–and how rarely, really, we read a novel written from that perspective.

But my biggest frustration was that I did not come away from the book with new insights into this thing that is such a close and yet often hated aspect of myself. I thought perhaps as an outsider, he would be able to introduce me to new aspects of the faith, particularly as it is explored in the South (I’m from the West).

I’m still not sure whether my frustration with the book is either the author’s fault of writing or my fault in imagination.


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Remember those essays

I was bitching and moaning about a couple of weeks ago? That I had to write right after finishing the diss? And I was in no mood to think?

Well, I got the reviewers comments back today. And for the most part, it’s ok. There’s some problems with the Black Power one (cause I didn’t really know enough to write it, but also because I stuck so close to the primary docs that there wasn’t enough distance). But I am very happy to report that I did not get chided for using too many quotes or for being a dumbass for my argument about black nationalism (actually got chided for the things I said about race–where I was attempting to acknowledge difference while arguing that a separate black nation does not in fact exist. So I wasn’t as careful with my language about race b/c I was so freaked out that they’d hate my language on nation). Gotta smooth out the rough edges, submit, and get paid. Phew!

It is interesting how difficult I find it to write directly about race, given how many years I have now devoted to studying … well, not race exactly, but people with a race that is frequently observed and remarked upon.

I liked the comment from Hampton Stevens on Ta Nahesis Coates’ blog  about the slipperiness of racial terms as more and more intermarriage happens:

My friend in San Francisco emailed a little story. He was watching World Cup with his daughter—Spain vs. Switzerland. The girl, a 9-year-old, asked her daddy a question.

“How come there are African-Americans on the Swiss team?”


How does a parent answer something like that? Does she think that only the United States has black people? Is she innocently asking why Americans are playing for the Swiss national squad? Is she using “African-American” reflexively, simply because she has never been taught another term for darker-skinned people?

For the record, judging from the Swiss roster, the kid was probably looking at Blasé Nkufo, born in the Congo, and Gökhan Inler, of Turkish descent.

The right answer then, might have been something like, “They aren’t Americans, dearheart. That fellow is from the Congo. That chap over here comes from Turkey.”

My friend didn’t know that at the time, however. Nor did I, in fact, until looking it up online just a few moments ago.

While the little girl can be excused, grown-ups can’t be. When British racer Lewis Hamilton won his first Formula 1 race, a bunch of news outlets had to issue corrections after calling him the “first African-American” to win an F1 race. Boxer Lennox Lewis and Naomi Campbell, also British, often are similarly mislabeled. So is Iman, born in Somalia, for goodness sake.

How best to answer his daughter’s question started a debate in our little email group still raging. The funniest line though, came when yours truly was making the point that globalization—and good ol’ American Melting Pot-ness—was making simple racial classifications harder and harder with each new generation.

For instance, what about NBA star Tony Parker? He was born in France, the child of a black man from the U.S. and a Dutch model. What do we call him? “Dutch-African-American” seems a little too long. And what about his wife, Eva Longoria? She was born in Texas, to a very old family of Latin-American descent.

“When Tony Parker and Eva Longoria have a kid,” I wrote triumphantly to the group, “What will it be?”

“Rich,” my friend wrote back. “And very, very good-looking.”

True dat.

How about it readers, how would you have answered the little girl?

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The Seattle school district lawyers responds to Charles Mudede’s claim that a teacher removed his daughter from her classroom in a rude and racially motivated way here. They claim that the teacher was absolutely at fault, but was motivated by health concerns, not by race. They’re proof that she was not motivated by race?

“because, well, because the district would not tolerate employment of a teacher that has racial animosity towards a student.”

That is some pretty damn fine circular reasoning.

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Sorry for the title…it’s from a David Sedaris essay that I thought was hilarious and still wanders around my brain. The character asking that in the essay was speaking about the actual anatomical possibilities inherent in the word; I use it as my title to curse my poor excuse of a brain.

Over at the Stranger, Charles Mudede, a black father and blogger, wrote a very strong article about the treatment his 8 yo daughter received at her Seattle school. She was the only black child in the advanced class, the teacher came over to her and told her her hair smelled bad and she needed to leave the room. She was then placed in a lower level class where there were more black children. Mudede entitled the piece “Black Hair and White Racism” and now there is a libel suit in the offing. Evidently there were enough details in the piece to identify the teacher. Meanwhile the daughter wants to read War and Peace while she is suspended because it is long and difficult. Mudede suggests Middlemarch instead, a book I read in middle school and have many warm memories of (because it is a good book, but also because I conquered it and no one else in my grade would have even thought of reading it). Links for the first article, the second (in case you were wondering what the hair product was), and the third.

The comment threads are…well…sometimes shocking and sometimes disheartening and sometimes interesting. A lot of folks (I would guess white) complained after the first article that there was nothing in the story that proved race was at its heart–rather that it might have simply been a case of a chemical sensitivity and a child with strong smelling hair. A child who could have been white or brown or black. I knew a teacher who had to go to the hospital at least once a year before her students took the “no-perfume” rule seriously. So chemical sensitivity is possible, but the child was wearing a natural, olive oil based product. And her treatment of the child was so insensitive and caustic–she said something like “your hair stinks.”

[add 5-28] Just noticed this clarification in the comment thread on article 3 from Mudede: “I want to make something clear. the problem does not rest in my posting about it. i did not mention the school or the teacher by name. the problem has to do with what i learned today about the situation–and it’s even worse than i thought. i honestly wish none of this had happened. i wish my daughter could finish her last month of school with this teacher in peace.”

So why did I start off the post with a curse? Because I just feel so overwhelmed in my potential profession. Which is a load of crap, because African Americans go through so much more on a day to day basis than I do. But that’s part of the problem. I cannot help but wonder whether my understanding of things is fatally flawed because of who I am. Every time I decide it is not something happens to rock my foundations–like my recent defense.

Why can’t I write these very easy little undergrad essays? I finally started just free-writing tonight. The question is “Do African Americans constitute a ‘nation within a nation.'” I’m basically trying to go through and explain where the idea of the nation came from, what constitutes a nation historically, why some black leaders have argued that African Americans are a distinct nationality. My writing is crappy interlocked circles instead of a clear line of argument (one of the goals for this assignment), but maybe that’s just free writing. Then there is the way I’m writing the damn thing. Instead of doing my dissertation route, where I mostly tried to just push black opinion to the forefront, rather than have my own opinions, with this piece I’m trying to actually write what my opinion is. But it’s coming out so aggressive–like, what kind of an idiot do you think you were, Marcus Garvey, for planning to take over a piece of Africa from the “backwards” Africans and then resettle black Americans there? I’m basically trying to argue that as an identity, African Americans have a nationality–but they don’t have a separate nation. The United States is their nation. There are ways in which they have had self-determination–local areas with all black governments (who still have to interact with multi-racial states and national government). I think self-determination is a fundamental piece of being a political nation (less so with being a cultural nation–but even there the Poles and others had self-determination as a goal. If it is not there, then ethnicity is a better descriptor).

I dunno. I’m just perpetually mad at myself these days. I won’t be able to give myself space till these stupid essays are done, but I can’t write the essays without enough mental space to write them, but if this is the kind of phlegm that comes out…what do I do?

The last time I just went with my gut instincts was with writing my introduction, in which I made these entirely unnecessary, very aggressive statements which is what got me into all that trouble at the defense. Of course, it didn’t help that my advisor chose not to read said introduction b/c he didn’t think it was actually necessary and hates all historiography. Surely he might have spotted some of those misstatements. All that crap about advisors being there to protect you…crap. They are there to achieve their own goals.

So, I’m trying to do research. But what pops up when you do research on whether or not African Americans constitute a nation? Black nationalism, obviously. I could restate why black nationalists see African Americans as a distinct nation, but I would probably get something wrong because I don’t entirely buy it. I buy it as a rhetorical style to get African Americans to unify around a central motivating idea–like the Universal Negro Improvement Association or community development or solutions to poverty. But as an independence movement, I just don’t see how it is possible. But then, maybe independence is not really the end goal. Is independence the end goal of the Welsh national movement? it is a goal, but maybe the larger goal is preserving the Welsh language and culture. What is the defining difference between race pride and black nationalism?

There would be no way to establish an independent African America without forced relocation like that which occurred during the Bosnian war in the 1990s, when the three different ethnic groups in the region both fled their long-time neighbors and were forced to flee. Unless there was some way to draw circles around urban areas and declare those independent, I don’t know where else African Americans would set up an independent nation.

But maybe I’m getting entirely too transfixed by geography. It does seem like, though, another major conflict within black communities is between those who desire to be a wholly part of the United States and are trying to overcome barriers to enter into full citizenship, and those who want nothing to do with the States and instead focus on their racial identity. I think that there are a lot more of the first (based on my albeit limited reading that I am now unable to footnote) than would seem self-evident in black studies departments. African Americans who are fascinated by race end up in black studies departments–there is a certain amount of self-selection there. African Americans who acknowledge their race, are proud of their race and heritage, and also want to be called “engineer” rather than “black engineer” also exist. Or, as illustrated by two profs I know–“US Historian, specializing in black history” or “African American Historian, has no interest in teaching US History.” It does not seem to me that one is better than the other, yet by saying that, I feel like I am always in opposition to black nationalists. Sort of like saying everybody can have their own religion, I am in opposition to evangelicals, who believe everyone should have Christianity.

So what do I do? This post is already approaching 1300 words. These fucking essays only have to be 2000. Surely I just do them, find some evidence for what I’m saying, some practical numbers and some such, a few “further reading” books and be done!!!!! Cause yelling at myself to finish always makes me move faster (cue dramatic eye roll).

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Thus, it is no surprise that CNN found both black and white kids maintain a decided bias toward whiteness. For instance, 76 percent of younger white kids pointed to the darker figures when asked to identify “the dumb child.” Because this is a pilot study, those results are not definitive. But they are instructive.

So is this: A few months ago, a white teacher brought a black girl up to me as I was preparing to give a speech. The teacher wanted me to talk to her. She doesn’t think she is beautiful, said the teacher, because she is dark. I asked the girl if this was true and in a soft voice, with eyes averted, she said that it was.

And man, what do you say to that? How do you explain the psychology of self-loathing and the futility of judging oneself by someone else’s beauty standards, and the cumulative psychological weight of 400 years of being told you are not good enough and the need to embrace and love and value yourself just as you are? How to explain all that in 90 seconds or less while people are pulling at you, and the event is about to begin and you’ve got a speech to give and this little girl won’t even look up?

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What if???

Let’s play a game, shall we? The name of the game is called “Imagine.” The way it’s played is simple: we’ll envision recent happenings in the news, but then change them up a bit. Instead of envisioning white people as the main actors in the scenes we’ll conjure – the ones who are driving the action – we’ll envision black folks or other people of color instead. The object of the game is to imagine the public reaction to the events or incidents, if the main actors were of color, rather than white. Whoever gains the most insight into the workings of race in America, at the end of the game, wins.

So let’s begin.

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Seriously a bundle of nerves. I joined a discussion board a couple of days and instead of doing anything, I just click, has it changed? click, has it changed?? respond, write….

Contacted the others on my committee today. I know it’s my responsibility to be in touch, but it’d be lovely to have a little bit more feedback sometime. Started emailing them 9 months ago about my defense. Would you like to meet? Would you like to see chapters ahead of time? No, no and no.

So what will they say about my work? Who knows.

I took the opportunity of the total fake out about the dean’s rep (how did my ueber administrative advisor miss this??) from another department to email someone in sociology I should have gotten to know forever ago. I met her first when I was still super sensitive to being awkward around black professors (having gotten burned by one in particular and not yet having met others who were more supportive…feeling like an ignorant loser, basically) and she is a very strong, in your face type of woman. Also, I thought she was a Caribbeanist, but then I heard her mention black sociologists awhile ago and realized I should go talk to her. I would say to myself…I will as soon as I read that book and know my stuff a bit better…and so it never happened.

It seems so bizarre that I never talked to her (I would have if I was in AAAS instead of in history…but my efforts to get involved in their activities was less than successful–sometimes b/c of me and sometimes b/c of a certain fences mentality. For instance, they never advertise their speakers widely, except maybe the day of, despite getting nationally known folks who would be of interest to folks outside of their cohort. And they’re in the same building, so they could just put up fliers. I took a class through them once with the director…bit of a disaster all told–b/c of the director, not b/c of me).

So anyway, I felt like I had to explain why I had never contacted her, and then went on to explain my project and ask if we could meet when I’m in MI in the next couple of weeks. She responded:

indeed, we make errors in our early years and some can be costly.  i hope that is not the case with you.

Without vocal context, this at first like a threat to me. I’ve been trying to read it with a more kindly tone of voice in my head and can see now how it could be read more positively. She offered to read some of my work, I sent her my table of contents, she chose a chapter, and we will be meeting.

With this, and then an abrupt and dismissive email from the professor I am petrified of who is on my committee, I am back to being that puddle of white goo who thinks she knows nothing, instead of the confident woman who’s written 700+ pages with primary sources every other sentence, so it is indeed about black voices and not about her (but who also has some arguments).

Have to have a presentation before hand. Last defense at my school I went to, the presentation was next to nothing, so I guess I was sort of thinking about that. But then another prof emailed me to do a thorough job…I think b/c she got stuck in Belgium for weeks after trying to go to a conference and not being able to get home b/c of the ash cloud. I don’t think she took my diss with her, so she’ll have a week at the end of classes to try to read the whole damn thing. So I can imagine why she’d want a thorough presentation.

Ugh! And my head is completely empty!

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