The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter


Friday, November 06, 2009

More Racial Fun!

Some good conversations about race, triggered by the racist publisher. My thoughts, in order, to the subjects raised?

1)I see no problem with Blacks assimilating as Americans. I DO see a problem with Whites considering this "White." In other words, they see themselves as the standard to which all others must measure themselves. Since they cannot look white (even if they try to lighten skin, get plastic surgery, straighten their hair (women) or shave their heads (men)) they MUST remain second-class citizens as a group. It is a subtle and insidious problem--and precisely the unconscious intent of the behavior.

2) I don't really "self-identify" as black so much as recognize, quite clearly, that that is how I am seen by others. It therefore enters my consciousness as

a) what are the problems in my life and career that I cannot understand unless I look at life through that lens?

b) What are the unique contributions do I have to give the world? Some of those deal with my rarity in the category of race: my life experiences, attitudes, and career choices would be rare for an "American" of any kind, but virtually unique for that section of Americans with African genetics. When I speak before a White audience, it has a powerful effect. When I speak before a Black audience, it is overwhelming. I have to acknowledge this. But I'm totally aware that I am of mixed genetics, and that my genetics aren't really very important, in the end. I don't wake up in the middle of the night thinking "I'm black". I do understand I'm playing a cultural game of chess, pogo-sticking through a racial minefield, and that that way is littered with shattered black bodies. My sister considers herself "Multi-racial" and that is actually a more accurate term for my genetic status. But it also avoids certain controversies which, I think, must be dealt with head-on rather than sweeping them under the cultural carpet for another generation to deal with.

3) I'm not at all offended if someone considers me more assimilated into American culture than most Blacks. That's fine. And it's true. The problem (and it often happens) is when people refer to whatever positive attributes they see in me as "White." That I find automatic, unconscious, and unfortunately. Inarticulateness is inarticulateness, not "Black." Logic, articulateness or neatness are not "White." When was the last time you spoke to someone of Irish (or whatever) descent who was inarticulate and thought "they don't sound White"? My guess: never. You aren't grasping the preassumptions in that--or the truly horrific results when and if the dominated group accepts that definition. That is EXACTLY like an abused child accepting that they are "ugly" and "stupid". America is not a White country, and never has been. White Americans are currently dealing with the trauma of coming to understand this, and it isn't pretty.

4) I've commented on the two-parent thing. You're right that there are far too many in the Black community who defend single-parent child-rearing. As there are many white feminists who argue that it's fine for women to deliberately get pregnant without partners. And I've made it clear I consider this to be poison across the board. Whites have a higher safety net, so that poison isn't as damaging. And the motivations are different, somewhat. In Black America it definitely represents a breakdown in social structure, economic realities, and statistics of black male-female incarceration and education. But since blacks in indigenous cultures (say, Kalahari Hunter-Gatherers) provide full support for their children, one cannot call this a 'black" phenomenon without annoting that it occurs only among colonized, oppressed cultures--in other words, is a SYMPTOM of massive damage, rather than an intrinsic aspect of the people themselves.

5) Oh, I'm far more assimilated into mainstream American culture than the average Black. Or the average White, for that matter. But that doesn't make me "assimilated White" no matter how comforting that idea might be for White people. Like Popeye said, I am what I am. What you think of me is none of my business.

6) Shady Grady: of COURSE I would rather the publisher be honest with me. Are you kidding? That's like asking: "are you sure you'd want to know there are sharks in the water?" "are you sure you want to know where the land mines are?" What possible benefit would there be in NOT knowing? Then I know I'm not hallucinating when my books don't get reviewed, or are reviewed more harshly than other comparable books. If he was honest, there wouldn't have been the endless panels asking "why aren't there more Black people in science fiction" as if we are somehow different, don't have dreams and imaginations. We would KNOW why: because it is painful to be constantly excluded, killed out, denigrated by some of the best and most celebrated writers int he field. People would be able to make a conscious choice, rather than hallucinating that SF is somehow a harbor safe from "-isms". And I would have known what I was up against in the field from the beginning, and would have laid my plans differently. Grady: that's like asking if you'd like to know if an employee is stealing, or your wife is cheating on you. Hell, yes. One of the things I love about Jerry Pournelle is that he was honest and courageous enough to say, straight out, what he thought. That is honorable and non-problematic. Hidden racism allows people to do damage and then blame the victim.

7) I think all societies go through multi-ethnic phases, whenever two groups come together. There is strife, and then they assimilate each other's characteristics and become something new. To me, that's the only way it ever happens. To those who play the very typical human game of "we" are the "real" people and everyone else needs to become like "us" to be normal, this change is stressful as hell. So become "American"? Sure. But when black people call being studious, polite or articulate being "white" I consider that ignorant and poisonous. And think the exact same thing when white people say it.

##

Oh...and by the way. Watch "Flash Forward"? I like it, but it fell into an interesting variation on a theme last night: a black character killed to prove to a white woman he never met that "life is good." And also comfort an Asian character that it was all right to embrace his black fiancee. What fun!

20 comments:

Shady_Grady said...

Steve, I thought you might based on previous postings but I never want to ASSume..

Brother OMi said...

"America is not a White country, and never has been."

you blew my mind with that one...

" because it is painful to be constantly excluded, killed out, denigrated by some of the best and most celebrated writers int he field."

i feel you 100%, it does hurt when it is done by very good writers whom I admire and wish to love and support.

Mike Ralls said...

>I DO see a problem with Whites considering this "White."<

Completely understandable because of the cultural history and connotation of "White," which has historically always excluded you and your ancestors.

But now that, in my opinion (and you can think me wrong on this) the Dominant Tribe in America is willing to accept non-Whites as full members of the Tribe, some new word or phrase is need to convey, “Fully Assimilated American / Full Member of the Tribe.” Just using “American” is a possibility of course, but that is also a legal citizenship definition so I’m not sure it would work as well as some other word.

>When was the last time you spoke to someone of Irish (or whatever) descent who was inarticulate and thought "they don't sound White"?<

Americans of the early 19th century probably thought precisely that.

But for me, never, but when I hear someone Black who was inarticulate I don't think, “they don’t sound White.” I think, “They don’t sound normal/educated/etc.” I grew up in an affluent neighborhood, and while we were mostly white there were still some Asians and Blacks. They spoke like everyone else at school, so I don’t think I ever really associated articulateness with “Whiteness.”

> America is not a White country, and never has been. <

True, but only true insofar as it is also true that Russia is not and never has been a Russian country. But the Rus in Russia and Whites in America have always been the dominate group into which many other groups have assimilated into.

>But since blacks in indigenous cultures (say, Kalahari Hunter-Gatherers) provide full support for their children, one cannot call this a 'black" phenomenon<

There is Black (The ethnic/cultural group composed of those who are the visible descendants of slaves in America) and there is black (Humans with darker skin). The two groups are completely different, and I don't recall anyone saying that the phenomenon was more common to those with darker skin all over the planet.

> I think all societies go through multi-ethnic phases, whenever two groups come together. There is strife, and then they assimilate each other's characteristics and become something new. To me, that's the only way it ever happens. <

This is incidentally, my position as well, with the exception being that one other way it happens is when on the group kills the other group.

Anonymous said...

Ah, the intersection of race and gender.

Marty mentioned the romantic interests of the Sutton children on Lincoln Heights. Steve mentioned the black FBI agent's death and the John Cho/Gabrielle Union romance on Flash Forward.

I "saw" Celia and her sons as Hispanic. I'll think some more about the racial implications of Al's death. The fact that I saw the people he died for as people of color meant that his death, and the show generally annoyed me for reasons other than racial reasons.

As a black woman who reads this blog fairly regularly and watches Lincoln Heights only occasionally, I never thought much of Taye's lack of a love interest.

If anything I appreciate both shows for showing that the potential love interests of black women can include, but are not limited to black men.

Note: Now that I think about Taye's lack of a love interest, I do realize that it is problematic.

Marty S said...

This whole race/racism think is really complicated. Take Shady's point about housing and let me personalize it. I believe in a color blind society, but eight years ago when I was selling my house in Rockland county I was keeping my fingers crossed that no Black couple would show interest and probably would have pulled the house off the market if one did. Why, because we are good friends with the couple who lived next door to us and they would have been devastated if we sold to a Black family. Now are these people racist conservative republicans? No, they are liberal democrats. She taught in a primarily Black school, and would brag about how her students did on standardized tests and that it only took a teacher who cared. So, why the problem with Black neighbors. Well, prior to purchasing the house next to us, they owned a house in another area. A Black family moved into the neighborhood and White flight began. They refused to move, because it was against their principles. Eventually, they were about the last White family in the neighborhood and the value of their house had shrunk to a loss instead the big profit they could have originally made. So, if we sold the house to a Back family, they felt in their mid-fifties they could not handle that sort of financial loss again and that they would have to sell and leave the neighborhood immediately. So, does this mean we and they are racist? How much of White flight is really people not wanting to live with Blacks and how much is it motivated by the history of White flight and its financial consequences?

Pagan Topologist said...

Marty, isn't that exactly what people mean when they say that racism is deeply and intrinsically a part of American culture?

Marty S said...

Pagan: To me the answer to me is yes and no. What you have is a lot of people people acting in a racist manner by selling their homes not because they have a problem with Blacks, but because of fear of how their neighbors might react and the possible financial consequences. By the way, I have a Black neighbor four houses down from me. They were here when I bought six years ago and housing prices were going up then and continued to go up until the economic down turn so White flight isn't universal.

Foxessa said...

Does MR have ANY idea how much of what he is thinking of as white culture is taken from black culture?

The U.S. Century was the 20th -- because we were the most 'modern' nation. When did the 'modern' happen? When pop culture became black culture -- music, for starters -- when much so-called high culture like art incorprated so many elements from Africa, starting even with Picasso early, training work in Spain -- which has incorporated as much from Africa as it has from Islamic cultures.

Shall we go into style? Slang, food, etc?

And black isn't just one thing -- particularly in the U.S. that has so many black cultures here from Africa, from the Caribbean, from South America.

Nancy Lebovitz said...

Marty S, that home selling situation is pretty grim. Is there any way of finding out whether selling to a black family is likely to be as big a hit to home prices these days?

Marty S said...

Nancy: I have no way of knowing how prevalent White flight is today. But based upon my limited experience its a question of perceived threat of the area "going Black". If there is a predominantly Black population in the vicinity and that population is seen as beginning to spread to a nearby area then White flight is more likely. White flight does not occur in my area, because we are moderately priced homes surrounded by areas of much more expensive homes so there is less fear of the neighborhood becoming predominantly Black. Also there is an attitude that a Black family that can afford to move into the area is "okay" or in terms of the discussions on this page "relatively White".

Mike Ralls said...

>Does MR have ANY idea how much of what he is thinking of as white culture is taken from black culture?<

I've read a history on the cultural influence of the African slaves on colonial America, as well as multiple histories of Black America, so I hope I have _some_ idea. I've said multiple times that assimilation is a two way street. A US without any cultural influence from the African slaves (quite a few pieces of Southern culture can be traced to African roots from cooking styles to preaching styles) or from Blacks (those of visibly African decent who are are descendants from those slaves and were then segregated from mainstream American society and thus created their own distinct culture) would be vastly different from what we think of as American culture today. Vastly different. It would be recognizable (We'd still speak English, for example) but it would be at least as culturally different from our America as our America is from, oh Australia lets say.

Nancy Lebovitz said...

...in the end. I don't wake up in the middle of the night thinking "I'm black".

The unmarked state is pretty good stuff.

I'm starting out with Intu Flow, and my initial reaction to Sonnon's really striking upper body mobility and coordination was "Hey, isn't that belly dance/female stuff?". I know this isn't at all reasonable (male and female bodies aren't all that different, and spinal mobility is a much a male birthright as strength is a female birthright), but damn that social conditioning is sneaky stuff.

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Steven Barnes said...

"So, does this mean we and they are racist?" I'd say no. To associate a phenomenon with one race or another might just be realistic. To assert that some negative aspect of a group is intrinsic to them probably IS. That isn't what you're doing, at all.

Shady_Grady said...

"To associate a phenomenon with one race or another might just be realistic. To assert that some negative aspect of a group is intrinsic to them probably IS."

That's a very fine distinction. Can you expand on it?

In this context it doesn't really matter why there's white flight or whether a particular white family/individual acts out of racial animus/loyalty/preference or cold eyed rational self-interest. The aggregate impact is that realtors engage in steering, loans are not as easily written for certain neighborhoods as others and (all else equal) blacks have less wealth to pass on to their children in terms of home value.

Marty S said...

Shady: While your right that why doesn't matter when looked at from the point of view of consequences, your wrong from the point of view how do we change things. The most effective solution to the problem depends upon understanding the underlying causes.

Anonymous said...

Steve there are just as many in the black community that view education, striving for college, and not emoting ebonics somehow makes you white. How many times did we hear is Obama black enough?

jen said...

Anonymous said...

Steve there are just as many in the black community that view education, striving for college, and not emoting ebonics somehow makes you white. How many times did we hear is Obama black enough?

Didn't Steve(and Obama)already acknowledge that there are black people who believe "the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white?"

Still, I didn't think black people questioned Obama's blackness (only) because of his ivy-league education. I don't remember anyone questioning the ivy-league educated first lady's blackness.

Lynn Gazis-Sax said...

How many times did we hear is Obama black enough?


From black people? I personally didn't hear it at all. What I heard was a bunch of white people worrying that black people wouldn't vote for Obama because he wasn't black enough (a worry that didn't get born out when it came time for the actual election).

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